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The Story Of Sunil Hampaul


What It Takes To Be A Taxi Driver In Melbourne?

More than 80 percent of Melbourne’s taxi drivers are Indians. A community much misunderstood, they have often been at the receiving end of many hostilities with as many as five attacks against them in one month in recent times. All this, while ensuring that people reach their destinations safe at all hours of the day and night. Read on.

It was one of his routine day shifts when Sunil Hampaul, a taxi driver operating in the western suburbs, got a call from his base asking him to pick up someone from Altona north. No sooner had he picked his suspicious customer when just a street later, he was swooped down by 20 cars and men with sten guns facing him and the passenger. “Look at me, put your hands up, on to your knees.” Hampaul thought someone was playing a crude joke. He couldn’t figure out what was happening. Everything happened so fast. 

He was then questioned as to how he got the passenger. He replied he was just doing his duty based on a call from his operator. A totally shaken Hampaul was then let off after the police checked his credentials. He went home straight to the arms of his wife and five month old son. Later that evening, news was on TV that a notorious criminal was captured from north Altona. Hampaul breathed a sigh and a prayer, thankful that he was alive; he could have been another hostage. Did the cops offer him apologies? “I don’t care,” he says. “They were doing their job and I was doing mine. They did say ‘you did a good job, you stopped’.” The incident has stayed in his mind since. But life must go on.
The incident may not be common but the fact is Melbourne’s ‘most maligned men’ - taxi drivers - ferry passengers often putting their lives at great risk. “You don’t know who you are picking up but you got to do it because it your job,” says Hampaul, who comes from Jalandhar. He has been driving in the streets of Melbourne for three years now.

Driving at night is full of risks, says Hampaul. Abuses are common. People want to know the names so they can pick on their religion and start a fight. “I say it doesn’t matter mate, my ID is my name. If you want another conversation I am happy...There are so many other stupid questions which I cannot mention here. You take a lot of crap. The same person is a different person during the day, by night time after a couple of beers he is a different person.” 

With a majority of Indians in this profession, are they a targeted lot? Hampaul says the answer he generally gets is, “It happened to the Chinese first, then the Italians who came earlier and that is why it is happening to you? That is not an answer.” 

People are under the impression that the taxi driver is cheating them and making lots of money. “How can it be when it is metre based,” asks Hampaul.  On the contrary, explains Hampaul, it is a job that gives you the least amount of money, a fact supported by the Transport Workers Union who says, “Many don't earn enough money to compensate for the gruelling hours they are expected to work or for the risks involved with dealing with aggressive, often intoxicated passengers, especially at night." 

There are about 4,500 taxis plying in the metropolitan area and there is stiff competition too from other transport companies such as buses etc. “If I make 150 dollars a day doing a 12-hour shift, I am supposed to be happy. To make really good money, you have to work six days and 72 hours,” says Hampaul adding, “The operator gets half of what we earn, he in turn has to pay the lease which is killing. It is about 2,800 dollar a month.  Registration of the taxi is equally high at 2,500 dollar a month and is paid by the drivers.”

It is a tough calling. A typical day for Hampaul begins at 3 am when the alarm rings. His shift starts at 4 am and he must give himself some time to get ready and pull through the day. He is based in Footscray, the western suburbs. From 4 am to about 8 am, his base calls are mainly for taking passengers to the airport. After 8 am, the waiting game begins for local jobs till he winds up at 5 pm. That is routine Monday to Friday.

The taxis are normally parked in a rank or what is called a ‘pick-up phase’ and local jobs include ferrying pensioners, patients to hospitals or just shoppers. Sometimes after a two-hour wait, Hampaul gets an old lady who takes the taxi for just a 100 m distance, which comes to 3.80 dollar. “It works out to 1:50 dollar an hour. Nobody understands that. You don’t mind if you have continuous pick one drop but it doesn’t happen. Usually you end up making 280 dollar a day on an average. You will be really lucky if you make 300 plus.”

Like many others, Hampaul got into the profession because it was easy to get into. After studying hospitality for two years, good jobs were hard to come by so he took up the footsteps of his brother in the hope of making ends meet. But every day is a struggle.

This is the closest customer service as compared to other jobs but there are no safety measures adopted by the government, rues Hampaul unlike the United States where every taxi is prepaid and the backseat segregated by bullet proof windows with no passenger seating allowed in the front. Melbourne has prepaid services only from midnight till 5 am. 

He also thinks there should be discounted fees for lease and registration. But there is no taxis union to campaign for their rights. “It is now half a million dollar to get a taxi licence and I know a lot of drivers are paying 3,000 dollar plus GST a month for a lease.”

Hampaul admits he is struggling at the moment but the only bright side is the flexibility his job offers despite having no paid leave. 

Noted Australian comedian Lawrence Mooney says, “Hail the heroes of Punjab, Melbourne's finest, our taxi drivers, the much maligned messengers of the night who ferry home the drunk and the bereft to all points... These new arrivals are doing a poorly paid job that Australians are not prepared to do. And they serve us all, from plumbers to politicians, nurses to newspaper editors. So next time, kiss your driver. Just don't spill your bodily fluids in his workplace.” 

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