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Brussels taxi drivers facing uncertain future as pandemic rolls on

Illustration picture shows a taxi driver wearing a mouth mask, seen through a plexiglass screen at the headquarters of Taxi Verts, in Forest - Vorst, Brussels, Thursday 28 May 2020. (BELGA PHOTO THIERRY ROGE)
10:48 17/11/2020

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of many of Brussels’ restaurants and bars, the cancellation of most major events and the installation of a curfew in the capital from 22.00 to 6.00. The knock-on effect from these measures has been a 70% drop in turnover for the city’s taxi firms, according to figures released by United Freelancers, the independent taxi drivers' union, created by the CSC social and work protection organisation, and the Taxi Workers Collective (CTT).

While revenue has been slashed during the pandemic, the costs of running a taxi business have remained unchanged. The result is that the smaller companies and individual taxi drivers are in danger of going under.

The main issue is the ‘rent’ that taxi drivers pay to the companies that manage the call centres that distribute the work. Different companies share the Brussels market, but the principle is generally the same: these companies, which do not own taxis themselves, take the calls from clients and assign the nearest available vehicle. This service has a cost: it is the ‘rent’ that the driver pays to have the terminal which receives the ride information in their vehicle. For Taxi Verts in Brussels, this rent varies between €300 and €540 per month.

In March, during the first wave and subsequent restrictions, an agreement was reached between the Taxi Verts control centre and the taxi drivers. Those who stopped temporarily due to the pandemic no longer had to pay rent. This had the advantage that those who did not work had to pay fewer fees while on leave, while this freed up more customers for those who continued working.

But now, the taxi drivers’ unions say that the control centre does not want to renew this agreement. The losses they suffered during the first shutdown have convinced the control centres not to repeat the experiment. The CTT, together with United Freelancers and CSC Transcom, has announced that there will be a demonstration on Tuesday at 10.00 in front of the company's headquarters.

Taxi Verts has expressed its surprise and incomprehension at the complaint. "From the beginning of the crisis, we showed solidarity," explains Jean-Michel Courtois, one of the company's directors. “We have authorised, and still allow drivers to suspend their subscriptions. Most of them have done so." Asked if he would receive the protesters on Tuesday, Courtois replied: "We'll see who comes."

The fact remains that this issue of paying rent to the control centre is probably only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems taxi drivers are facing as the pandemic continues. For those who obtained a postponement of ONSS social security charges and various other payments in the spring, that moratorium is now coming to an end.

As Sam Bouchal, spokesman for the Brussels Taxi Federation, explains: "The banks had granted us a postponement of the repayment of the leases. But automatic payments have resumed since October. Now, after eight months of work stoppage, I don't know how I'm going to pay."

Written by Nick Amies