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Limo drivers: Victims of apathy, indifference?
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 21 - 10 - 2016

[caption id="attachment_93027" align="alignright" width="300"] Currently, a taxi driver works for more than 17 to 18 hours a day in his bid to earn the company required SR150 per day and then a little more for his and his family's sustenance back home.[/caption]By Saeed Haider
THE introduction of Uber and Careem in the transport industry in the Kingdom has dealt a deadly blow to limousine drivers in the country who say that they have lost more than 50 percent of their fares to these companies. They also claim that it was becoming increasingly impossible to meet the requirements of limousine companies or their sponsors.
Under the prevalent system, limo drivers are required to pay SR135-150 per day to the employers and anything earned above the prescribed amount is their income. They are not entitled to any salary or other benefits. In most of the cases, the expenses for their iqama (residence permit), medical insurance and exit and re-entry visa have also to be met by the drivers. The only silver lining for them is that they get a free Friday when they are not required to pay any amount to the employer and all money earned belongs to them.
In the bargain, they have a few advantages as well. For example, they are not bound by 21 working days annual leave entitlement. Many drivers who worked hard in the past and made good money by working 16 to 18 hours a day had a record of going on vacation for as long as four months.
The entire arrangement is in total contravention of the Saudi Labor Law. There is no provision in the Labor Law to use an expatriate as outsourced employee other than those hired by authorized recruiting agencies. The current status of limo driver is more of an outsourced worker than a employee proper.
The Ministry of Transport for a long time has been trying to streamline taxi business and its operation in the Kingdom and plug several loopholes in the system in order to protect taxi drivers, fares and business as a whole. But every time it comes up with one solution, a dozen new problems surface. What worsens the situation is the frequent change of policies by every new administration which normally contradicts or withdraws the policies of the previous administration.
Recently the Ministry of Transport announced that it would allow taxi services using private cars to operate in the Kingdom with Saudi drivers getting priority. Various companies were running the service without proper license and the ministry has allowed them to operate on condition that they register with the ministry. The ministry launched its Wasil online portal that collects data of drivers and their vehicles and makes them available to security officials.
A source at the ministry said that these measures were part of the ministry's move to streamline the transport sector and tighten security. All companies and drivers are required to be registered in the ministry's system.
With these new regulations and policies, the taxi sector is bound to expand in leaps and bounds and many international players are expected to vie for a share in the Kingdom's fledgling transport industry, which never got a chance to grow and stabilize due to the ever-changing face of the industry.
Uber, Careem and Easy Taxi have already established themselves and have made a sizeable dent in the taxi business. Several new players are expected to join the race soon.
But amidst all these reforms, new regulations and policies, the sorry state of taxi drivers continues.
In early days (1980s), limousine business was in its infancy and there were very few limo companies in the country. Still it was more organized and regulated. The drivers were given normal salaries and benefits and the passengers too were protected as almost all the limos operated on fare meters.
Limousine business received its first jolt in late ‘90s when out of the blue it was announced that limousine industry will gradually be Saudized and within a definite time period all foreign drivers will be replaced by Saudis. This announcement sent nervous waves in the industry and suddenly the whole face of the business changed. The worst-affected by the change were drivers who overnight lost their status as salaried employees and became outsourced entities who were now denied any salary and instead were required to pay the company or limo owner SR135-150 every day. In this arrangement, though the drivers were under the sponsorship of the limo companies they did not enjoy the status of employee in terms of salary and other benefits prescribed under Saudi Labor Law.
Sajid Khan, who came as a young man in 1985 and worked as a driver at a reputed limo company, recalls the good old days. "I was earning a salary of SR1,800. In addition there was proper accommodation, food allowance, overtime and even commission. And then in the mid-'90s everything changed. My company brought new batch of drivers who were hired on new conditions.
We were asked to accept new working conditions or else leave the job. A vast majority resigned and left but a few of us who have not much option accepted the new conditions," he said.
The government did react to the pathetic conditions of the drivers and another regulation came whereby it was mandatory for the limo companies to pay a minimum salary to the drivers. But no limo company took it seriously and drivers were never paid any salary and on the contrary were asked to sign the dotted lines of salary sheets.
It was during this period that the Kingdom saw a mushroom growth of limo companies and the gradual end of yellow cabs. The banks were looking for borrowers and very generously started sanctioning loans on easy terms to the upcoming limo companies to finance fleet purchase. The impact was experienced everywhere. Hyundai which had entered the Saudi market just a few years ago, suddenly became a hot product. Yellow cab drivers became owners of limo companies. But the real losers were drivers whose working conditions had gone to worst.
By 2010 the streets of Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam were overcrowded with limousines so much so that the Transport Ministry in 2012 decided to stop issuing licenses to add new cars to the fleet of limo companies in Jeddah and Riyadh.
The then transport minister had said that no permits will be issued to taxi companies in Jeddah and Riyadh to enlarge their fleet.
"Licensed companies in these two cities will not be allowed to add any new cars except to Saudize jobs or to replace existing cars with new ones. The number of taxis available in these two cities is too high and much higher than the projected demand," the minister had said.
He said having too many vacant taxis roaming the streets is adding to congestion on the roads in both cities.
"The ministry aims to regulate the streets of the cities to maintain social, economic and environmental balance. The ministry must also ensure that the roads of these cities have the capacity for public transport vehicles. The ministry is responsible for the transportation sector in the Kingdom except for aviation," it was said.
Interestingly in a span of just three years suddenly the congestion on the roads of Jeddah and Riyadh, it seems, has eased and pollution decreased allowing authorities to open up taxi business to all including foreign and indigenous players. Anyone and everyone can operate his private vehicle as a taxi upon obtaining a permit. Of course, preference is given to Saudis.
But despite this tremendous liberalization which will yield more revenue and increase competition, thus benefiting the passengers and improving the service, the sorry state of limo drivers remains unchanged.
It is about time the ministry streamlines its policy on drivers and ensures that their rights are protected. Taxi services also need to be regularized as the tariffs have not been revised since the introduction of modern day limousine service. There is hardly a taxi which runs on meters.
The ministry should also ensure proper working hours for drivers.
Currently, a taxi driver works for more than 17 to 18 hours a day in his bid to earn the company required SR150 per day and then a little more for his expenses and his family's sustenance back home, thus risking his own life and that of his passengers.

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