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September 21, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Riding in Cabs with Taxi-Drivers

I wanted to hear a taxi-driver’s tales unmediated, and wanted an outside perception of the New Zealand experience. I went to the Dixon St taxi belt, hopped in some Kiwi Cabs (by far the cheapest taxis in town FYI, but that’s another story. I’m not sponsored by them, promise!), asked their permissions and had a wee yarn with the drivers.

“Has it been a busy night?”

Whether you’re late to the airport, need to attend a meeting on the other side of town, like, ten minutes ago, can’t rely on a bus, even if you’re just stranded at a party at four in the morning, it’s likely you will have taken advantage of a taxi service. It’s equally as likely you will have asked the same banal questions we all ask of taxi-drivers, in an effort to get conversation flowing but to keep it from getting too in-depth:

“What time do you finish?”

The taxi provides an indispensable function for society, and has done for a long time. In times of yore, they were called livery-men, draymen or vetturinos; though the vehicles they used were more rudimentary, the principle is unchanged. Wherever you want to go, a taxi’s there to take you from door to door. They occupy a more curious space, too. As the pilot episode of Sherlock (BBC version, naturally) played on, taxis are simultaneously ubiquitous and anonymous in the cultural landscape.

Fortunately, many enterprising statisticians find the subject of taxiing fascinating – and not just because it’s one of those words that always looks like it’s been spelt wrong. Among other findings, their discoveries proved the typecast of immigrant taxi-drivers correct. In the USA, 38 per cent of taxi-drivers are immigrants – but in big cities, the proportion increases to anywhere between 50 and 84 per cent.

Similar research conducted in other Western countries – Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom – supports this position. It’s a xenophobe’s, or Winston Peters’, worst, most sweat-the-bed nightmare come to life: an entire industry that relies on immigrant labour to flourish.

Another, considerably darker immigrant-cliché-turned-urban-myth was confirmed by the studies. When an immigrant taxi-driver purports to have a doctorate in mathematics or to be a skilled neurosurgeon, chances are they are not fabricating or even embellishing. In one study, only six per cent of immigrant taxi-drivers listed their field of study as “transportation services”, with others having degrees or being capable in business, architecture, engineering and design. So why are they relegated to something that is (problematically) considered ‘unskilled labour’, or at least a job that does not befit their qualifications and talents? The answer seems to be Eurocentrism. Immigrants who obtained their degrees from Western universities are more likely to find jobs in their sector of expertise than those who graduated from universities in, say, India, Iran, China or the Philippines.

That’s the ‘why’ accounted for. Much more important is how taxi-drivers here in New Zealand feel about this, and other things: whether the standard of living here is acceptable; whether they like their job; what the difficulties are. I wanted to hear a taxi-driver’s tales unmediated, and wanted an outside perception of the New Zealand experience. I went to the Dixon St taxi belt, hopped in some Kiwi Cabs (by far the cheapest taxis in town FYI, but that’s another story. I’m not sponsored by them, promise!), asked their permissions and had a wee yarn with the drivers. These are their stories.

Day Shift

I spoke to Sam, an immigrant from Iraq who possesses appraising eyes and a countenance that betrays only wry flickers of emotion. He is quietly spoken, and thought over the questions carefully before answering.

PM: So, Sam is it?

S: Yes.

PM: I was just wondering whether you like taxi-driving, y’know, find it an enjoyable job?

S: Yes. Yes, I love taxi-driving. I think that sometimes I work, in an hour, 50 minutes, and ten i’m just sitting down not working? But, same thing anywhere. In an office.

PM: What kind of hours do you work?

S: The hours I want. I mean, we can work up to 70, and some people do, but my hours are more flexible: I can work when it suits me.

PM: But you opt for the day shift?

S: Yes.

PM: Grand! So forgive me, but I take it you’re not from New Zealand?

S: No, no. I’m from Iraq. I got my qualification there—

PM: In what?

S: I got my degree in Engineering, from Al-Mustansiriya [University]. I couldn’t find work in Iraq and I was in the army, went to the army… did my service and applied to come to New Zealand straight away. I was lucky, I got in… Do not ask me about army? I do not think I would like the question.

PM: Of course, that’s totally fine. So you like it here?

S: Oh yes, that’s why I live here. That’s why I wanted to live here. It’s very beautiful.

PM: Very different to Iraq, I imagine.

S: Yes.

PM: How long have you been living here? Your English is fantastic.

S: Thank you! I have been here for quite a while now, I began in restaurants and cleaning and – hospitality? So I picked up a lot of English. So it didn’t pay as well as the taxi, but it was very good for me: when I first came here I – my wife – didn’t know any English at all. Now I know a lot and I can talk, although I still don’t have total English or the right accent.

PM: The right accent?

S: Yes. You know, the way you New Zealanders speak.

PM: I guess I haven’t noticed it really. I can totally, uhh, understand you.

S: Drunk people can’t.

PM: So you mentioned a wife before; did your family come with you from Iraq?

S: Yes, I have a wife and a young daughter.

PM: Congratulations!

S: Thank you! She has an accent even though she’s spent most of her life here [laughs]. A big Iraqi accent!

PM: So do you want to get a job in engineering? Is it annoying, y’know, not having a job in your degree? Sorry, I hope you don’t mind the question…

S: No. No, I like being a taxi-driver, and learning English and seeing New Zealand way of life, because I had to. I’m so lucky to be here… do you understand? I am lucky, lucky, lucky… where should I stop along here?

Night Shift

I also spoke to Sandip*, a former resident of Mumbai, India, who works mainly night and graveyard shifts. He is youngish, impeccably dressed, clean shaven and subtly cologned, and pauses often during our conversation to take sips from a coffee cup or take a bite of a Whittaker’s slab.

PM: Hi Sandip! Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s pronounced ‘Sahn–deep’, is it not?

S: You got it first time!

PM: Thank heavens, that could’ve been embarrassing. How do you like the taxiing business, Sandip? What kind of hours do you work?

S: It’s fine, I drink a lot of coffee and there’s not much sleep… On Sunday, I finished at six in the morning, woke up at 11 to take my daughters to a festival. I think the customers, in general, are very nice, very polite, but sometimes they try to run away without paying or they’re very drunk. Women and men too. They’ll say things like “Ooh, currymuncher”, or y’know…

PM: Gross.

S: Yes. Gross. But as I say, most are very friendly, not too insulting.

PM: So what kind of hours do you work?

S: Monday to Friday, I start at five, finish at around midnight? Saturday, I start at 11 [pm] and go through until seven, but it’s not set in stone. Sometimes, I’ll pick up extra shifts or not work some days; it’s flexible. I support my wife and children, though, so I like to work as much as I can.

PM: Understandably! And without being too intrusive, the, err, the pay—

S: Is good. Very good.

PM: Fantastic, as it should be! So I gather you’re not from New Zealand but India, right? Which part of India?

S: Mumbai, which is not very well known but is bigger than Delhi and Bangalore!

PM: I think I had a tutor from there once! Is it very different?
S: Yes, especially on the road – it’s crazy, no rules! Also, much harder to find work, get a good job, support family.

PM: I can imagine. So did you study?

S: Yes, I studied. History. Masters at the University of Mumbai.

PM: Far out, that’s awesome!

S: What do you study?

PM: English Literature.

S: Ahh, there is some crossover then! With Philosophy too! And Politics!

PM: Exactly, very versatile subject. Anyway, do you ever miss Mumbai? Do you ever wish you had a job at my university, say?

S: Ahh, I miss family but not Mumbai: very crowded, not a place for girls to grow up. My children love school – at Island Bay – and I am happy to see them happy. I know I cannot get a job here, even with my qualifications, but this? This is the price I pay.

PM: Surely it doesn’t have to be that way?

S: Perhaps not, perhaps yes. It’s not in my control.

PM: Should New Zealand make room for more immigrants – up their quota? Give them more support when they get here?

S: I don’t know. You have a very special place here, very special. I am happy to be a part of it. But could I be a part of a History department? Definitely. Your students would find what I have to say interesting. Then – I am happy. I am happy here. I like driving and it is not too hard. I don’t know.

S: Is here okay?

PM: Perfect, thanks.


* Name changed upon request.

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