By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
Taxi drivers would not be struggling to obtain the new self-employed jobless benefit if the government had moved faster on granting new plate leases and franchises, a union president is arguing.
Wesley Ferguson, president of the Bahamas Taxi Cab Union (BTCU), told Tribune Business: “Absolutely nothing is happening right now. The only thing now is that I am inundated with calls on how to fill out this application [to NIB] to get this relief that the government promised the self-employed people who were in the front line of the tourism industry.
“But it is turning out to be a disaster for taxi drivers, especially those who don’t have their own franchises or didn’t get their plates, and this is not for the unemployment assistance as they will get that automatically. I’m talking about the other dilemma they found themselves in.
“If you remember, the minister Wells (minister for transport and local government) mentioned last year December that the moratorium on taxi plates was lifted. Since then he has pushed the date back over and repeatedly, so no taxi driver basically got any new taxi plates,” Mr Ferguson added.
“So what happens is in a situation like this, where the country shuts down, those people who were leasing plates now will undoubtedly lose those plates because they can’t afford to pay the owner for the plates. The owner is not going to leave you out there with their plate on your car for an extended amount of time.”
Mr Ferguson said the fact many taxi drivers do not own their franchise or plates is making the benefit application process more difficult. Since many drivers rent their plates from other persons, with the business licence held by whoever they are renting the taxi plate from, he explained that individual drivers are having trouble proving they are self-employed to access the $10m facility provided by the government.
The union chief added: “Of course, you have those people who were outright driving for some body whose taxi and taxi plates they were using. Obviously all of those cars were confiscated by the owners.
“So had the government moved a little more quicker with the lease of these new taxi plates, a lot more of the taxi drivers would have been more in an independent position where - although they may have not been making any money - they would have had their own car and their own plate, so that would not have been a factor on how to regroup after this is all said and done. That is going to be a challenge for the average taxi driver.”
The self-employed benefit facility, which is being administered by the National Insurance Board (NIB), will enable persons to receive $200 a week for every two weeks for eight weeks. This will give taxi drivers and others, such as jet ski operators, taxi drivers, straw vendors and tour operators, the ability to obtain a total $1,600 over this period.
These persons do not normally qualify for NIB unemployment benefits. They have to be registered with NIB, and persons who are temporarily laid-off will also be eligible for NIB’s standard 13-week unemployment benefit. Sickness benefits will be available for those who catch or have to quarantine because of COVID-19.
Mr Ferguson said the entire taxi industry was shut down, and “everybody is home just chilling out until this thing blows over”. He added: “I advised all taxi drivers to stay at home and stay safe, and stay near their families and don’t go on the road looking for anything to do.
“I had several calls from people who came in at the airport, and I basically told them that there was no one available and to see if they can get a ride from someone, somewhere. Maybe one of those essential workers could give them a ride but I am not putting any drivers out there at risk.”