At the beginning of a night out with a few friends earlier this year, I was having the usual conversations you would have with your taxi driver. ‘Busy tonight mate?’ ‘When did you start?’
What I didn’t expect was the conversation to veer into the driver describing a racially motivated attack. But that’s what he described: a recent incident where, under a hail of abuse, he had been beaten up and his money stolen from his car. He explained how he went to the police, but his case was thrown out of court as they didn’t have his home address.
My friends and I were stunned that a court could dismiss such a serious case on those grounds. Afterwards, I set about speaking to other taxi drivers in Hull, where I live and serve as a Labour councillor. Many of them, it turned out, told similar stories of racially-motivated attacks with little help from the law.
These workers felt as if their voices were insignificant, which is a familiar feeling to BAME communities, but a far cry from the insistence of local authorities that they consider hate crime a top priority.
As one of Hull’s few BAME councillors, I decided to try to find out how much was known about these attacks in the halls of power. When I went to the police or local licensing authorities, a patronising reply was all too common. The incidents I was describing were probably a hate ‘incident’, not a hate crime, they said. The police were recording these incidents but not acting on them.
But the issue of BAME taxi drivers being abused at work is only part of the story. It is individually performed work, which makes it lonely, isolating, and difficult to organise. If the bosses see you as a troublemaker, it is quite easy for employers to stop giving you work. In a city like Hull, where monopolies of taxi companies are steadily forming, you can be easily made to feel that you will struggle to find employment if you raise your voice.
The local authorities made clear that they did not want to deal with the problem. So, I set about organising. I contacted Charlotte Childs, an organiser with the GMB union. We met several taxi drivers, and heard harrowing tales.
In one instance, a young Pakistani man had been assigned a job from Hull to Liverpool. On the motorway, he discovered that the men in his car were members of the English Defence League. On the journey down, they shouted to him about how they were going to beat him up as soon as they arrived in Liverpool. It was only the intervention of one of the group, calming things down, that prevented the assault.
The driver was thankful for this, but no-one should need to be thankful for not getting attacked in the place that they work. We discovered that the blasé responses of police officers to reports like this meant that drivers rarely reported these cases to the police anymore. These workers — like many in the BAME community — felt as though the police didn’t want to hear.
But the taxi firms also carry a portion of the blame. In 2014, Hull’s taxi firms made the national headlines after it was revealed that they allowed white-only taxi drivers to be requested. Although Labour councillors criticised this at the time, drivers in the city insist this is still an operating practice, and that operators advise customers on code words to bypass this. The repercussions are obvious: hostility to BAME drivers is normalised, and made acceptable.
The only way to fight back is with class solidarity: building union density and bonds of solidarity between workers. A number of drivers explained to us how difficult organising had been. However, with the GMB, we worked with them to set up meetings and bring workers together. Over time, this gave the union recognition among the drivers as a player in tackling these issues in a way that police and employers wouldn’t.
The GMB gave incident diaries to drivers so they could jot down every hate crime they experienced. We were then able to record the sheer extent of the abuse drivers faced, and to prove to the authorities how widespread the problem was. In fact, it had gotten so bad that the diaries revealed the drivers would have no time to work if they reported every incident to the police.
This showed the real reason for the underreporting of hate crime by Hull’s taxi drivers. It wasn’t that it wasn’t happening, it was the total lack of trust drivers had in the police and the fear many felt of potential repercussions from the companies they worked for.
The key to overturning a police culture which only rhetorically opposes hate crimes, and to forcing the employers to respect their duty of care to their workers, is giving confidence to drivers. The only way to do that is to show them that the support they will receive from our movement is substantive.
If taxi drivers wanted to, they could shut down a city. Many elderly people wouldn’t be able to do their shopping, the vulnerable could not attend hospital appointments, and the young would not be able to get back home after a night out at the weekend. Workers need to understand their strength — but they can only do that when they find a way to organise.
The discussions we are having in Hull are only the beginning. By organising these drivers, we have forced the powerful interests who ignored them to take notice and begun to turn the tide on the epidemic of racist abuse. But we will only defeat it entirely when we have a unionised, safe and dignified rank across the city.