Colin Gerrard pulls up to a hotel in Wollongong, where the taxi base has told him a job is waiting. A young woman with her hair covering her face gets into the back of the taxi.
“Abercrombie Street, please,” she says in a London accent. Colin’s ears prick up; he recognises the woman. It is Lily Allen. She is touring Australia and visiting some friends; a rap duo from West Wollongong.
“I like your work,” he says politely, glancing at her in the rear-view mirror. She looks up at him and smiles; she’s recognised his accent as well.
“Where are you from, like?” she asks.
Colin smiles, “Oh, I’m from Liverpool.”
“Oh yeah,” she says, “Beatles.”
He nods, they always say that.
Colin’s introduction to music was the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but moved on to the Rolling Stones and progressive rock as he got older.
“I've kept up to date with Triple J,” he says.
“Even though I'm an aged person, I like to listen to modern stuff. Queens of the Stone Age, Jack White, people like that.”
Along with Lily Allen, Colin has driven a number of high profile people, such as a victim of the Rolf Harris scandal, councillor Ann Martin and Nick Rheinberger of the ABC.
“I love music and Nick Rheinberger is a big muso himself. We have had a few nice conversations. They have an account with Wollongong Radio Cabs,” he says.
Colin has been driving taxis since 2001, initially as a second job.
“I worked at a bank during the day and worked a couple of taxi shifts at night time and weekends. It was good money in those days. You could earn as much on a shift as you would at the steelworks,” he says.
But Wollongong has changed and the taxi industry has suffered as a result. Families now have more than one car and the introduction of the Free Shuttle Bus has reduced the need for taxis during daylight hours.
“I think it's rather unfair because the State Government pays Premier, who have the [Free Bus] contract, the running costs of the buses, they provide the buses and they pay the driver's wages. The taxi industry, in my opinion, provide a public service. We don't get anything from the government. Nothing. No subsidy whatsoever,” says Colin.
Taxi drivers in Wollongong don’t get an hourly rate, so if they don’t get any customers, they don’t get any money. This morning, Colin sat for two hours before he got a job.
“I'm not happy with the income, but I'm at a stage in my life now where I can retire next year if I want to,” he says.
“It suits me because my wife has a disability and I care for her and if I had a regular job I couldn't do that. So I go home for breakfast, home for lunch, go home at tea time.”
Colin has stopped doing night shifts due to the situation with his wife and for his own personal safety.
“I prefer not to be beaten up or robbed or things like that. I have had issues before,” he says.
All taxi drivers are taught how to deal with difficult patrons when they do their course.
“Some remember, some don't,” says Colin, “but good communication skills is basically it.”
With drug and alcohol affected patrons, it is important to make them feel at ease. Colin will often share a joke with patrons, ask them which way they would like to go and not overcharge them.
“Then there can't be any arguments and normally, 90% of the time, it's okay.”
Unfortunately, the unreasonable ten percent do exist and it is for that reason that taxis are fitted with an emergency button and security cameras. The emergency button can be activated by the driver’s foot, so that patrons are unaware. The button channels a connection with the base, so they can see and hear what is going on in the taxi and direct police and other taxis if required.
Colin has had to use these measures once before, when a man got in his taxi at the rank in Gwynneville.
“He got in and I said good morning, sir, and he said drive, just effing drive. I’ll tell you where we’re effing going. We went towards Denison Street and picked up a guy on the corner. They were going to buy some drugs,” Colin recounts.
“He said turn left, go here, go there. I've hired the cab, you go where I want to effing go. So I activated my M13 alarm and to cut a long story short, we ended up at a motel in Flinders Street. I heard them say what are we going to do with the driver? Are we going to knock him off?”
By this time, a few other taxi drivers were coming to Colin’s rescue. Two blocked off the entrance to the motel and the other pulled up beside him to see if he was alright.
“The two guys freaked, put $20 on the seat and ran off. The fare was over $40, but it was alright,” says Colin.
“It was just safety in numbers. They didn't have to get out of their cars, they were just there as a group to protect me. You could wait for the police for half an hour but you could be dead by then,” he says.
Taxi drivers are not allowed to use force against a patron, they can only assist the driver until the police arrive. In a difficult situation, they must rely on calm conversation, eye contact and good interpersonal skills.
“I always say 'sir' and 'ma'am', it sounds old fashioned, but it's a node of respect and it doesn't cost anything to be polite and respectful,” Colin says.
“90% of all customers I pick up are nice people. There are just the odd few,” says Colin,
“Unfortunately, the newspapers really focus on bad news stories rather than good ones. But generally, Wollongong's a pretty safe place. I love living here.”
A young local taxi driver, Jeff, grew up in Albion Park Rail and drives taxis as part of a family business. Over the past few years he has been driving in between studying a Bachelor of Information, Communication and Technology. His family own one of only three eleven-seat taxis in the Illawarra and run their business quite differently to normal taxis.
“I've made it a bit more fun than what it normally would be, with the party lights and stuff. For me, it's just cruising around, pumping beats and having fun with the people in the car. It's not like I work,” he says.
“Most of the customers start treating you like they're good friends of yours. It's just pretty much hanging out with your buddies at the end of the day, really. I don't mind it.”
But working mostly night shifts means that Jeff still comes across a few troublesome patrons.
“You get the odd dickhead, I'm not going to lie. People that are too drunk and you can tell that they're too drunk. You occasionally get the odd person who's pissed off about something,” he says.
Recently, Jeff had a man get in the car who was a DJ.
“Apparently, he didn’t get paid for his gig at the club, so he thought he shouldn’t have to pay for the cab,” he says. The man got aggressive, but eventually pulled cash out from a stash of $300 down his pants.
“I was like, why didn't you just pay me from the start? Why be that guy? But they're just drunk and they think that they're above the law or something, I don't know,” says Jeff.
In situations where the police do need to be involved, Jeff says that they are mostly very fair and reliable.
“The Wollongong Police are probably the first ones to hear both sides of the story before they start jumping to conclusions,” he says.
“Whereas, I've been there when a Sydney police officer rocks up and they don't listen to the cabbie as much, they kind of always think that the cabbie's at fault. They’re like, Aw, mate it's $20, just get over it. But if I got over it for $20 with every customer, I'm not making money. You know? I don't go to Coles and take stuff off the shelves and not pay them.”
One of the most intriguing stories Jeff has is from a few years ago, when one of the drivers working for his father was picking up a regular customer from the mental hospital in Shellharbour.
“Normally this guy would just say radio, turn it up, turn it down, that sort of thing. But this time, he goes you're taking me to Barrack Point,” says Jeff. The driver took him to where he wanted and stopped the taxi.
“The guy goes, Alright, now I need you to get out of the car, I'm not gonna hurt you, I just want the car and you can take the money,” Jeff recounts.
“Our driver was scared, so he just grabbed the cash and jumped out of the car. The psycho guy jumped in the driver's seat and drove straight off a cliff!” says Jeff.
In an unusual coincidence, police found the body of an Aboriginal man just 100 metres from where the taxi landed.
“It turned out that the guy drove the car off the cliff, it landed on its side, he opened up the driver’s side and ran away,” says Jeff.
“They thought that it was the Aboriginal guy that stole the car because he was so close. Our driver was talking about the white Caucasian man who stole the car. The police thought he was just under heaps of stress or something!” says Jeff.
“The way they actually solved the case was my dad told the police officer to look at the security camera footage to see who was driving the car. So they went and downloaded the photos from the black box and got the pictures of the white man driving the car off the cliff,” Jeff says.
“So it was a very weird one.”
"I get heaps of good stories from the cab. Weird, wacky, sometimes a bit scary. When I see my mates it's all they wanna know. They're all, what happened on the cab on the weekend?"
Please note: the subject's name was changed at their request.
It is a warm Wednesday evening as Henk Haasjes sits in his taxi outside a Seven-Eleven in Wollongong. He has just started his shift and is enjoying a coffee before going to join the end of the line of taxis at the rank. He will work through the night until about three am, when the next driver will take over for the daytime shift. Henk has driven taxis for the last eight years. He is a carpenter by trade, but switched to taxi driving due to a lull in business.
“I enjoy the work most of the time,” he says, taking a sip of hot coffee, “You got your bad moments; people being rude or they got no money or they try to run. Some are aggressive. But most of the time, it’s good.”
Henk describes his worst customer, who he came across a few years ago.
“He tried to stab me with a barbecue fork!” Henk says, “The guy fell asleep and I drove him home. When he woke up, he became aggressive. He threatened me with a barbecue fork. I drove a little further, in front of the Warilla Police Station and I ran out of the cab to the cops. I said ‘This man wanna kill me!’”. The police arrested the man and made him pay the taxi fare, before releasing him.
“He was off his head,” says Henk, shaking his head.
Henk is originally from Holland. He grew up in Hasselt and learned English at school before joining the army.
“The army was compulsory in Holland then; the two oldest sons had to serve, so I did the training and volunteered in Lebanon, for the Peace Corps. The United Nations had a peace-keeping force in Lebanon and Holland delivered soldiers there; 800 Dutch there in the south of Lebanon for seven years. I was there for one year. I was in the army for two years altogether,” Henk says.
He would have stayed in the army for longer, had it not been for an accident when he was seventeen, before he joined the army.
“I fell and knocked my head on a steel bar and was unconscious for three hours. Nobody noticed me. Eventually someone found me and took me to hospital. I was in an induced coma for three days,” he says. As a result, Henk is deaf in his left ear. A year after the accident, he applied for the army and lied in his medical tests so that he would get in.
“I said I was healthy. I was bored of carpentry and I was young, I wanted to try something new,” Henk says.
“And I got in; I loved it. After I served in the army I wanted to sign up for another couple of years, but they had to do another medical test and they found out I was deaf and that I lied to get in.”
After being forced to leave the army, Henk moved around and worked a lot. He worked all around Holland and in Berlin before returning to Hasselt to open a restaurant.
“It was the smallest restaurant in the world!” he says, “One table and two chairs.”
Henk funded the restaurant, ‘Kiliaen’, through a phone competition, whereby people paid one euro per minute in a bid to win a free dinner at the novelty restaurant. However, the restaurant only lasted nine months due to council restrictions.
“They closed it down because it was too small, by law. It had to be at least 35 square-metres and it was only eight-and-a-half,” says Henk.
“So after a year of the council winging I decided not to wait for everything and went off for Australia instead.”
During that time, Henk had been talking to an Australian woman, Mary, through an internet chatroom.
“The internet was just up, it was in the 90’s, so not many people had the internet the way we’ve got it now,” he says.
“I was using a program called ICQ to communicate with my friends because it was cheaper than using the phone. I met a nice girl, Mary, and we started chatting. She invited me over for a holiday and I’m still here!” Henk says with a coarse laugh.
“I liked it here and you know, the rest is history. We have a son together, he will be starting high school next year.”
Henk has only been back to Holland three times since moving to Australia.
“I like it here, I don't miss Holland that much. Don't forget, these days, you've got the internet and you can watch Dutch TV if you want. But I don't do it a lot,” he says.
“I don't have a lot of contact with the Dutch here. They're almost invisible here in Australia. There are enough of them, but most Dutch people who come here start talking English and do the Australian way, you know? There is not really 'the Dutch way' in Australia; Macedonians build their own church, Muslims build a mosque, but the Dutch, there is nothing of them. Maybe the Pancake House, you know. Or the windmill in Melbourne, but that's it. And don't forget, the Dutch were the first here, before the English!” Henk laughs and takes a sip of his coffee, which is almost cold. It is almost time for him to return to the taxi rank.
Even after fifteen years and thousands of kilometres from where it all started, Henk is still using his wild imagination and ambition to create something different. In 2011, he proposed building another version of the smallest restaurant in the world on Hill 60, in Port Kembla. Although that proposal was unsuccessful, Henk has not let it slow him down. He has recently set up a new app, Taxi Ezy, which already has over 800 downloads. He hopes to change the way we order and use taxis by introducing an online booking system, discounts for regular taxi users and the opportunity for customers to select and review specific drivers. The free app can be downloaded from Google Play.
Corruption within the Wollongong taxi industry has been enormously down-played, according to a local taxi driver. A number of incidents where drivers have acted inappropriately have not been dealt with by Wollongong Radio Cabs or its governing body, NSW Taxi Council, says the source, who did not wish to be named.
“It’s ludicrous, the things that happen,” says the source, who has been driving taxis in Wollongong for a number of years.
“The stories that you hear of drivers assaulting passengers, drivers being rude, uncooperative or overcharging. I've had young blokes in the car tell me they've been dragged out of taxis and bashed. Stuff like that. I've had a girl in the car who told me that she was driven to a remote spot and the driver tried to sexually assault her. Now whether this is true or not, I don't know. The thing is, if it gets reported…what would happen? Swept under the carpet,” says the source.
Other incidents involving fraud have also been dealt with poorly, he says.
“One guy in Corrimal got done for 286 counts of fraud,” says the source. He is referring to Mohamad Matar, a former taxi owner who used fraudulent Taxi Transport Subsidy Scheme vouchers in the name of a deceased hospital patient in 2005.
“He's still got about ten plates I hear,” says the source, “They're spread between his relatives and wife and so he's basically still running it from Corrimal. They took his license from him, but he's still running the business. It's as if it doesn't make any difference, except he can't drive a taxi. It's crazy, the stuff they get away with.”
In the taxi industry in Wollongong it’s all about who you know, the source says.
“Here's a classic story. One taxi driver, he's getting a lot of jobs. All the other taxi drivers are sitting on the rank, they're not working. He's whizzing past doing all these jobs all the time, all day! He's making two to three times as much as everyone else,” he says.
“Then they find out he's in with one of the operators. So when a good job comes through, the operator was just texting him the address and then he's going to get it and he's making a fortune. That person is still working at the base!”
There are times when good jobs are few and far between, says the source, who has sat at a rank for up to four-and-a-half hours during a shift.
“On Tuesday night I went out and made $60. That was it. You get no holiday pay, no superannuation and no sick pay. You do the maths.”
In Wollongong, drivers pay the owners of the taxi 50% of what they make during a shift. The taxi owners pays for the upkeep of the taxi and fuel costs. To be a taxi owner, a person must buy a set of plates, which are around $240,000, then they can lease, or ‘bail’ the taxi out to drivers. Some owners choose to become drivers, whilst others have nothing to do with the industry and treat the plates as an investment.
“There's a group of director's, I think there's seven,” says the source. “They're on the road, so if something happens, you're supposed to be able to approach a director and report it. But, depending on who you get, I mean, they just don't do anything.”
Recently, a driver was caught using Department of Education vouchers fraudulently, says the source. The driver routinely drove a child to school who received subsidised fares from the Department of Education. The source says that the driver would fill in the vouchers even when the child was sick and wasn’t going to school.
“He drove the route every day and put in the dockets,” says the source. “Got caught, but nothing's happened. He got removed from doing those jobs, but he's still driving. I saw him on the rank last night!”
In order to combat the problem of corruption within the Wollongong taxi industry, the source says that the base needs to be separate from the local area.
“They could have the base in Sydney, it doesn't have to be here. It doesn't have to be employing local people, or relatives of people that are driving taxis. Then it’ll be a fair system,” he says.
The new job allocation system, MT Data, helps with making call-in jobs fairer, but for pre-booked jobs, there’s still a problem.
“I'm thinking about it now. If I worked in the base and my brother worked out in the taxi and I could see a job's going from Figtree to Mascot tomorrow morning, I’d probably do it myself! I'd tell him. The only way they can stop the corruption is to remove the base from the area,” says the source.
He also suggests that the way that complaints are reported needs to be re-evaluated.
“There needs to be an independent body of people looking at the complaint. Not these relatives or friends. If I put a complaint in against someone, it could be a brother of one of the directors that's looking at the complaint. How fair's that?”
He suggests that The NSW Roads and Maritime Services needs to look at complaints independently, or allocate a group to do so. He believes this will improve the fairness of job allocation and stop complaints against drivers being swept under the carpet.
“Taxi drivers are supposed to be honest, but all I see is corruption thriving,” says the source.
Five local taxi drivers share some of their concerns about the present situation in the industry. They express their frustration with the government's treatment of the taxis and their ongoing struggle to make ends meet.
I make as much money as I did in 1994. Do you know how much the economy has changed since then? It’s changed maybe 400 times more and we are still making the same. The jobs are still there, but there’s a lot of competition.
The courtesy buses being run by the clubs are a huge problem for taxis. The people are still spending the money, regardless. When the people went to the club in ‘93/’94, I remember they used to say to me;
"Oh, this is my last ten dollars, I kept it for the taxi."
But, now, do you know what that last ten dollars goes to? It goes to the poker machine or the drink. They know that the courtesy bus is outside for them. They know they can drink the last penny they’ve got, or gamble the last penny they’ve got. I reckon they've taken no less than 50% of our work on a Friday or Saturday night. Then you’ve got the Free Buses running around; who’s going to get in a cab then? There’s a lot of competition.
There’s a lot expenses added to the cabs. Before, we used to be able to make a living and pay our mortgage. Then, every couple of years, you’d be able to save some money and go on holiday. But now, you are struggling just to pay your bills. You work to live. There is no luxury.
The people need to understand that we’ve tried to make a living. They think “Ah, it’s okay, it’s busy on a Friday and Saturday night, they’re making $300 or $400!” But do you know how many hours I do every Friday and Saturday night? Minimum 18 hours. So if you divide it up, most of the time I’m making ten dollars to twelve dollars an hour. Someone working at KFC makes more than me. My daughters make more than me. And that’s at a busy time. Not even on a quiet day.
It’s getting harder to make an income and it’s getting harder with the amount of unemployed people around. We get a lot of people not paying. People use faulty cards and say “I didn’t know I had no money”. The taxi lifestyle is not getting any easier.
Taxi, it is the same as fishing. Sometimes you catch a small fish or a big fish; small fare or big fare. That's normal for a taxi. But driving a taxi is not the same as any other job in Australia because every other job in Australia has superannuation and safety. Taxi has no safety. No medical. No paid leave.
The government doesn't like the taxis. They're charging the taxi [industry] too much money. A green slip is $6700, for what? It's the same as a normal car. Everything for a taxi is expensive.
Please Note: Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees.