Immigrant taxi owners mostly feeling impact from Uber

‘All we are asking for is fairness,’ says Champlain Taxi president

Martin C. Barry

After 25 years in the taxi business, George Boussios says he has never seen a provincial government do so many about-faces as the Liberals have in their handling of Uber.

“In one Liberal mandate, their first transport minister, Robert Poëti, was against Uber a hundred percent, saying it’s illegal,” the president of Champlain Taxi, Montreal’s second-largest taxi service, said in an interview with Newsfirst Multimedia.

Three ministers and counting

“A few months later Mr. Poëti was gone and then they put in Mr. Daoust,” he added, referring to Liberal MNA Jacques Daoust who was then appointed transport minister. “But I guess Mr. Couillard wasn’t too happy with the second transport minister going against him, and then the Rona problem arose and he [Daoust] resigned. So now we have a third transport minister in one mandate, which right there to me doesn’t seem right.”

The latest appointee in the transport minister’s post is Laurent Lessard. He remains largely unmoved by the pleas of the province’s established taxi industry to deal more decisively with Uber, which is gradually undermining conventional taxi service. The government’s overall view is that Uber – which uses independent car owners without taxi permits – is operating legally, although the government believes some tweaking is necessary to iron out inconsistencies between Uber and regular taxi service.

A question of fairness

“All we are asking for is fairness,” said Boussios, who took over Champlain from his father who operated it before for decades. According to Boussios, the value of taxi permits, which have been mandatory for cab owners up to now, has diminished by more than $100,000 since Uber became involved in the past few years.

“Five, six years ago they were worth $210,000 – $220,000. I saw a permit two weeks ago that was put up for sale for $120,000. The owner died and the family put it up for sale. That really says it all. If you can drive for Uber without a permit, why would you invest even $1,000 if you can do it without a permit? It looks to me almost like someone is trying to devalue permits on purpose.”

While maintaining that San Francisco-headquartered Uber hasn’t been obeying new legislation, including a clause that says the company’s drivers can’t bill for more than 1.5 per cent in surge charges, Boussios said the company routinely behaves as though it is beyond the reach of the law.

“We all know that Uber does not follow any laws or respect any laws, whether it’s here or all over the world, and that’s why they’re in court all over the world now because they don’t care about the law. It’s a disgrace that we – especially the Liberal Party – make a law and Uber just laughs in their face and does basically whatever they want.”

Champlain’s fleet shrinking

While Champlain Taxi’s operations peaked at 500 cars, the fleet now stands at around 390 vehicles. “Permit owners can’t find drivers to work their cars,” said Boussios. “The people who are suffering the most in this are the permit owners. When a driver, who hasn’t invested anything, hears from Uber that he can work with no rules or regulations, why is he going to work for me?”

For Champlain Taxi, the immediate impact has been a reduction in revenue which comes from monthly dues. “If they’re paying $400 per month per car per owner and 10 cars leave, I’ve lost $4,000 right there – that’s what we’re losing.” At the rate Uber is advancing, he predicts that within five years the taxi industry as it is now will no longer exist.

“Look at Diamond,” he said, referring to Montreal’s longtime cab industry leader which was bought up recently by transportation entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer. “Diamond was the biggest one in Montreal and they sold out. If Diamond with 1,000 cars and that’s been a family-run business for 60 – 70 years can do that, what’s next? If Uber stays, it doesn’t look good for any company. There’ll be no point of driving a taxi when you drive for Uber in your own car.”

Impact on immigrants

Boussios sees individual taxi permit owners as being the biggest losers in the chaos that is sweeping Quebec’s taxi industry. “I’m talking about the person who’s invested $200,000, remortgaged his house to basically buy a job.” He said immigrants are most affected, including Haitians, Algerians, North Africans, Lebanese and some Greeks left over from an earlier generation of cab owners.

Boussios sees the inaction of Premier Philippe Couillard’s government as symptomatic of decay he thinks lies within the Liberal Party. “All my life I’ve been a Liberal and my parents were Liberals,” he said. “We are told to vote Liberal because of fear of separation and referendums and language laws. But at the end of the day, you know what, it is a party of corruption. In the end, they’re not for the middle-class and hardworking people. They’re for people like Uber and for people like Taillefer who are part of the top one per cent.”