Shandong officials claim to have the answer for China’s taxi strife

One year ago, the Ministry of Transport in Beijing announced plans to get rid of the taxi contract system under which drivers rented their vehicle from the cab company but were still responsible for all vehicle expenses.

The high rental fees (份儿钱) charged by the cab companies and soaring expenses have led to countless strikes and protests by taxi drivers across China over the last few years, and the ministry hoped that many of the drivers’ grievances could be alleviated by moving towards a system where drivers are directly employed by the cab companies.

China Labour Bulletin noted at the time that getting rid of the contract system, while a good first step, was unlikely to solve the all drivers’ problems because, without a proper trade union, the drivers would not have a say in determining their pay and working conditions.

Indeed, there seems to be little evidence that the ministry’s plan is working. Strikes and protests by taxi drivers in China are still as common as ever, with drivers regularly complaining about the monthly fees they pay the cab companies, low flag fall and mileage rates, increases in fuel costs and, in particular, unfair competition from unlicensed “black cabs.”

Once place where there has not been a strike in the last few years is the district of Changqing in the suburbs of Jinan, the provincial capital of Shandong. This is not because Changqing’s taxi drivers do not have any grievances; on the contrary, they complain vociferously about high fees and black cabs just like all other drivers in China. However, according to local government officials at least, Changqing has succeeded in creating a democratically-elected trade union that can help resolve these grievances.

Moreover, they say, one of the union’s elected officials is a former “trouble-maker” who is determined to stand up for his members’ interests. The Shandong Party-controlled Dazhong Daily (大众日报) reported that Dong Mengxi, who used to organize regular driver protests, was highly suspicious when the local transport department announced the establishment of the trade union at the end of 2008:

I didn’t take the union seriously when it was founded. To be honest, I really thought it was just a ‘façade’ and it couldn’t possibly solve any actual problems for the drivers. The drivers all wanted me to participate in the election, but I never thought that I would be elected.

After his election as vice-chairman of the union, Dong’s ideas began to change:

Before, I always thought the government was inactive and useless. Now I know that many problems are simply caused by insufficient communication and are entirely preventable. When there was no trade union before, the drivers had no way to file their complaints. Since the establishment of the union, both the company and the transport department can hear our opinions promptly; while we can learn about the relevant policies of the higher authorities and the company management in good time.

Indeed, the Dazhong Daily claimed that transport officials in Changqing were more than happy to discuss policy ideas and proposals directly with the drivers. The head of the transport department’s taxi section explained:

In the beginning, I was bewildered when I was asked to deliver a work report to the annual meeting of the Federation of Taxi Drivers Unions. At first, I couldn’t quite deal with the change of status and role it implied. But after thinking it over in a calm manner, I realized it was the right thing to do. We are the authorities, but more importantly, we are a service department and we ought to offer services to the drivers.

The Changqing taxi driver trade union is a conciliatory rather than a confrontational body, very much in the tradition of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). As taxi driver union Chairman Li explained:

As industry authorities, we must be bold to face the companies and their employees, especially those who have different opinions. We must bravely face their appeals, listen to their ideas and solve their problems. Only when we take such actions can we truly fulfill the purpose of solving problems and resolving conflicts. The founding of the federation seems to ‘back up’ the taxi drivers and ‘bring down’ the authorities and taxi companies, but in fact the federation plays a coordinating and communicative role which is beneficial to all three parties.

While this government-created model may not be ideal, it does at least seem to provide the drivers with an effective channel for communication, and if the drivers really are happy with the ability of their elected representatives to safeguard their interests, then the Changqing authorities should be commended.

The question is; to what extent can this top-down model be utilized on a broader scale throughout China? For any top-down approach to have a reasonable chance of success, the local government officials pushing the initiative need to show good faith and be willing to negotiate with the drivers rather than just report to them. Secondly, the drivers need to have faith in the system and in its ability to address their grievances.

Currently in China, it is asking a lot of taxi drivers, or any ordinary citizens for that matter, to trust the government and accept that it really does have their best interests at heart. Just like Dong Mengxi, most drivers will, initially at least, see the union simply as a front designed to control them. But one way to demonstrate good faith is to encourage and accept driver initiatives to set up their own trade unions.

In the past, local trade unions and governments have refused to accept such driver-led initiatives because they did not conform to the narrow bureaucratic stipulations of the authorities, specifically that unions can only be set up within the confines of an enterprise. And this is precisely why the ACFTU and the Ministry of Transport are now pushing the “employee system” in taxi companies; so as to make it easier for union officials to conform to their own rules.

Instead of worrying about which box to tick, the ACFTU and local governments should try to be more flexible and embrace whatever union structure the drivers themselves think will work best for them. Of course the local trade union can offer advice and suggestions to the drivers on how to make the taxi driver union more effective but it should not place arbitrary restrictions on it or dictate who can or who cannot be involved in it.

The job of the trade union is to empower its members, not to control them. If the ACFTU can embrace this concept, then the chances of creating effective and representative taxi driver unions will increase immeasurably.

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