SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Early Monday morning, a longtime New York City livery driver named Douglas Schifter posted an emotional 1,700-word note on Facebook. He said, companies do not care how they abuse us just so the executives get their bonuses. Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families, they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. They count their money, and we are driven down into the streets we drive, becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.
Later that day, Douglas Schifter took his life outside of City Hall in Manhattan. His suicide has underscored the financial and emotional challenges for professional drivers, whose industry has been disrupted, as they put it, by companies like Uber and Lyft. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance represents yellow cab and app-based drivers. Its executive director is Bhairavi Desai. She joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Thank you.
SIMON: Well, I must say Mr. Schifter was very eloquent. Help us understand some of the challenges that drivers face.
DESAI: You know, Doug really summed up the reality of a vicious race to the bottom. It's a business model that's specifically aimed at turning a full-time profession into part-time poverty pay gigs. And no driver wins a race to the bottom.
SIMON: Are the days gone when a man or woman can drive a cab for 8 or 10 hours and make a living, support a family?
DESAI: Yes. I had a member tell me yesterday this is his typical day - he works, you know, he sleeps for 7 hours, says he has 2 hours for himself to take a shower, eat a meal at home, say hi to his wife and kids if they happen to be at home. And then he's out driving. He hasn't had a day off in three years - long shifts, increasingly isolating. Sometimes, you take home 25, maybe 50 bucks at the end of your 12 hours. And the thing is it feels like there's no end in sight.
SIMON: What two or three things would you do if you could?
DESAI: Well, first and foremost, there really doesn't need to be a cap on the number of vehicles, you know? And I think it'll give, you know, workers a fighting chance at earning a decent living, and it won't clog the streets anymore, so others can get around. Also, we need to establish one metered rate. Imagine if across the economy, there is no minimum wage to protect the workers. It would be slave-like conditions. Third, we need to see an increase in the rate that we have today for drivers.
SIMON: The loss of Douglas Schifter is obviously a tragedy. Without getting hyperbolic, do you think his suffering and depression is symptomatic of what a lot of people are feeling?
DESAI: I've been organizing taxi drivers for - since 1996, and I've never seen the level of desperation. I started to receive so many calls from drivers seeking resources for suicide prevention and talking about homelessness and, you know, eviction notices. And so something has to be done here. You know, people - we don't - this is not accidental. Working people have a right to be protected. We have a right to work with dignity and justice, and that can be done through proper regulation.
SIMON: Bhairavi Desai is executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Thanks so much for being with us.
DESAI: Thank you.
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