The Women Behind the Wheel

This is the last story in a three-part series on the life of immigrant workers in New York CIty. Here is Part One, on Chinese delivery workers, and Part Two on Latino construction workers.

Dozens of taxi drivers are waiting to be issued their cabs at a taxi-leasing garage in Queensbridge, New York, a neighborhood just across the river from Manhattan. It is raining lightly, weather that could make for a busier-than-usual Sunday-night shift. Mohamed, a Pakistani driver, begins to tell Dolores Benítez about the $650 he had paid to a private yellow-cab owner in New Jersey to lease his vehicle for a week. Mohamed did not get a receipt and before the term of his lease was up, the owner took the car back and would not return his calls.

Benítez, the only female cab driver at the garage and one of the 1 percent of women working in the industry in New York City, has been listening to the drivers’ problems and offering solutions during her half-hour wait. She migrated from Honduras in 1976 and has been driving cabs on and off since the 1980s. With her long, graying hair, black-rimmed glasses, and deep voice, she commands respect.

“First of all, don’t ever give anyone cash without getting a receipt,” she tells Mohamed. “Second, go to the Taxi Workers Alliance office and explain to them what has happened. Because of this stupid GPS thing, they can track everything. They can track how many hours you actually worked and the deposit you paid, and then they can file a claim to the TLC [the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission].”

The Taxi Workers Alliance is an organization of about 16,000 cab drivers that represents drivers’ rights against city regulatory bodies and the cab conglomerates that lease taxis. Benitez is a member of the organization, which formed in 1998, at a time when the taxi industry was changing. Taxi medallions, initially designed to regulate the industry by keeping track of the number of yellow cabs on the road, were issued at a cost of $5 each in 1937. But by the 1950s, the medallion was being treated as a commodity that could be traded in an open market. In the 1970s, powerful brokerages emerged that consolidated medallions and leased cars to drivers. In recent years, medallions have sold for more than $900,000 each.

Whereas in the past drivers worked as employees for a taxi cab corporation, now they must lease their yellow cabs from a garage each night they want to drive. The fees are hefty: The weekly lease is capped by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates cabs in the city, at $1,389 plus fuel, which must be covered by fares before the driver can break even. Even still, garages want to charge more. In January, a garage owners’ association tried to challenge the current cap. And, unlike the previous system that ensured some degree of labor protections to drivers because they worked for an employer, the current leasing system offers no protections to workers and puts the burden of financial risk on the shoulders of the drivers, who must cover their lease regardless of inclement weather, poor business, or illness.

Given the tough conditions under which drivers must work, it is not surprising that it is mostly immigrants rather than Americans who are entering the industry. But there have even been shifts in the demographics of the workforce. It’s changed from predominantly Italian and Irish immigrants to almost entirely developing-world immigrants from countries like India, Bangladesh, Senegal, Pakistan, and Haiti. The Taxi Workers Alliance helped drivers mobilize in successive strikes to demand a greater proportion of fare increases for drivers. The alliance also secured Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance in the wake of 9/11 for drivers who had experienced losses in income and who, as immigrants, suffered a high rate of arrests and detention that mostly targeted South Asian and Middle Eastern men.

Drivers still face problems unique to their industry. Not only do they have to hustle to find enough fares each day to cover their leases and earn an income; they also deal with the threat of assault, job-related health problems, and onerous traffic fines and penalties. As working-class immigrants, drivers struggle against racism and are uncertain of the laws that should protect them from harassment and unfair business practices. Female drivers like Benítez face problems men don’t, and they represent an ongoing battle for greater worker rights: fighting against harassment, health problems, increased vulnerability on the job, and lower earnings.  Although Benítez and others like her are well respected by the male drivers that know them in their garages and in the alliance, on the road it is a different story.

As Benítez mentors Mohamed, the dispatcher calls out her name. We get into the Toyota hybrid cab, and Dolores pulls out the receipt from the garage. For tonight, she has paid $148.47 to drive the car for a 12-hour shift—the fee includes the lease itself, a credit-card service fee, a surcharge for the hybrid car, plus other fees. After paying for gas, plus tolls into the city from New Jersey, where she lives, she must pay around $230 total to drive the car for the night. Sunday nights are typically slow, and Benítez explains that it’s not unusual for drivers to work a 12-hour shift and not even earn enough money to cover their lease. But they must work these slower nights in order to lease the car on Fridays and Saturdays. Garage owners sell those lucrative nights in blocs with Sundays to make sure all the shifts are covered.

Benítez was a driver for nine years in the 1970s and 1980s, when she left to open a restaurant with her husband that failed in the Great Recession. Three years ago, she returned to cab driving. She saw the differences in the industry immediately. For low-wage immigrant workers who already lack access to state services such as housing and health care, the leasing system has made earning a livelihood even more precarious.

Job-related health issues, especially chronic pain and fatigue, plague cab drivers. Among those problems is a seemingly simple one that can lead to health complications after years of driving—taxi drivers don’t have time to go to the bathroom. Women face particular difficulties in using the bathroom during their shift, because they often feel embarrassed and won’t ask their passengers if they can stop. Men may be able to find a secluded spot to go if necessary, but women must look for public restrooms and then find a parking spot. Benítez has trained herself to work for five hours straight without using the restroom, which puts her at greater risk for urinary and bladder infections.

On the Sunday shift, Benitez drops a young woman off at a luxury apartment building in Battery Park. Benítez weaves frantically through the traffic and comes to a stop at a light. The cab driver in the next lane looks over at Benítez and makes a signal with his palms flat, facing downward. “He’s telling me to calm down,” Benítez says. “What does he mean? Male drivers think they own the world. They can drive how they like, but when women do it, we need to calm down.”

Women drivers are frustrated by these kinds of interactions with male drivers because they want to be recognized as professional drivers and treated as such. Benítez and Sanjeeda Khatoon, an Egyptian immigrant of Indian descent, say that when they see male drivers being harassed or mistreated they try to stand together with them. Khatoon relates that one time she saw a Bangladeshi driver holding a non-paying passenger by the shirt and insisting that he pay. She and three other drivers surrounded the passenger and demanded he pay up until he finally did. But when women face fare evaders alone, they are less likely than men to chase them down, making them an easier target for passengers trying to skip out without paying.  

Given the threat of assault that looms over all drivers, especially women drivers, the latter sometimes provide a safety support network for each other by staying connected on the road via conference calls on their headsets. In 2008, a driver named Neeru Singh was assaulted. She was in a group cell-phone chat with three other women drivers, and when the passenger began to make racist remarks, the other drivers urged her to drop the passenger off at the next corner. Singh put her headset on the seat as the passenger gave her the drop-off address, and so the other drivers all knew her location. After paying the fare, the passenger reached over through the partition and choked Singh with one hand while grabbing her bag with the other. One of the other women drivers called 911, and they all raced to the scene, where they, along with some male drivers, rescued Singh from the passenger who was charged with attempted assault and robbery.

But women drivers don’t always feel so supported by their male co-workers in the same way. Benítez says that one time on Broadway, four people tried to hail her cab, but she refused to take them for her own safety as she didn’t want a drunk man riding in the front with her. It is against TLC regulations for drivers to decline any passenger, but women must be more careful than male drivers in selecting their passengers, and they often refuse to have male passengers seated in front with them, which means they can’t take as many fares. The passengers refused to get out of Delores’ car. So she opened her car door, blocking traffic, and insisted that they get out. A male cab driver came by and told the passenger, “She has to take you.” Benítez wanted the driver to defend her, not take the side of her passenger. “It’s the only way I have to be safe,” she says. “If I’m inside the car, nobody can see if something’s happening. But if I’m blocking the road and something happens, everyone can see, and at least someone can call the police.”

Khatoon described similar interactions with male drivers. Late into her shift one night, Khatoon takes me to the Port Authority taxi stand to show me what she calls the “night mafia” of male drivers. After the dispatcher leaves at 11 P.M., the drivers put on their “off duty” sign and try to hustle rides to New Jersey and Long Island. Port Authority is usually a good place for drivers to pick up a fare, but due to the chaos created by the drivers after 11 P.M. it is hard for a regular driver to find a passenger. Khatoon and I stand outside in the bitter 18-degree temperature for some time, but the passengers that she finds are lured away by male drivers right before they enter her cab. We must get back onto the road to look for passengers. It is a busy night, so Khatoon should be able to keep finding street hails for a few hours more, but on quiet nights, drivers count on places like Port Authority to find passengers.

Women taxi drivers face both the same, broader issues that all drivers face, as well as specific problems that are shaped by gender discrimination, even from male drivers themselves. The taxi-worker movement has presented a powerful united front to demand changes from the city, the TLC, and garage owners. Above all, the alliance has mobilized workers to demand these changes, creating a predominantly immigrant union whose members have become empowered through the process of demanding their rights. The alliance has worked to raise consciousness over complex issues of racism with African American activists like actor Danny Glover. As more women drivers enter the industry, it’s likely that they will put issues of gender on the table as well. The alliance has a strong and vocal woman leader, Bhairavi Desai, and as Khatoon says, gender inequalities need to be tackled among drivers, too: “Bhairavi is representing all of us, but the point is, if some of us are doing injustices to each other, that’s not right.”

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