Business & Economy

Drowning in debt, New York taxi drivers go on hunger strike

By Ruth E. Hernández Beltrán

New York City, US, Oct 27 (EFE).- Drivers of New York City’s iconic yellow taxis are drowning in debt and competition from ride-hailing platforms, and after the suicides of colleagues, they are now into their second week of protest, including hunger strikes, to force the city to reduce their financial burdens.

Eight days ago, taxi drivers took to drinking water and not consuming any food, and sleeping in their vehicles outside City Hall, waiting for Mayor Bill de Blasio to accept their proposal to reduce their debt, which for some can total more than $700,000 for a license.

There they have erected an altar with candles and flowers and the names of colleagues who have committed suicide since 2017.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg increased the number of medallions — as the taxi licenses are known due to their appearance — which until then had cost between $110,000 and $140,000, and called several auctions that led to an inflation of their prices, thereby creating a bubble.

And as the medallion debt mounted, the entry of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing platforms over the past decade made the situation worse, flooding the streets with their new permits, reducing the profits of the traditional taxi drivers and leading to a devaluation of medallions.

When the pandemic struck, Víctor Salazar, an Ecuadorian with 30 years at the wheel and a $300,000 debt, told Efe he could not continue paying off the medallion — at about $2,000 dollars a month, not including gasoline and insurance — and he lost it, like many others.

Quadratullah Saberry, a 70-year-old Afghan, has been driving for three decades and still owes $300,000 so he has gone on a hunger strike.

“I have high blood pressure and high sugar and if I don’t eat regular food I probably will collapse, but I’m still doing it, I’m taking the risk to show the people that we are under this kind of pressure. Nine drivers committed suicide,” he said.

New York Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has come out in support of the taxi drivers.

“Over two years ago, we raised the issue of New York taxi drivers becoming victim to predatory lending schemes. They’re drowning in debt. And, heartbreakingly, some have ended their lives,” she wrote on Twitter.

“NYTWA (New York Taxi Workers Alliance) has been on a hunger strike for over a week. They need a bail out NOW,” she added.

The taxi drivers have proposed that the city, to which the Taxis and Limousine Commission that oversees the industry belongs, be the guarantor for all medallion-related loans, which would be restructured to a principal amount of no more than $145,000, with monthly payments of $800.

The proposal has been backed by New York’s congressional delegation, including Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, who along with Ocasio Cortez, has sent a letter to de Blasio requesting the city’s support for taxi drivers.

Bhairavi Desai, the president of NYTWA, which represents 25,000 drivers, said on Wednesday that they will not leave the street until justice is done.

Desai, also on a hunger strike, warned that if the crisis was not resolved, many would end up bankrupt, lose their only income and even their homes.

The city has proposed a total aid of $65 million that the taxi drivers say will only result in a “negligible reduction” in their debts. EFE


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