WHAT IS ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
There are concerns within the London private hire trade that unemployed workers in Romania are allegedly being exploited by training agencies and cab companies out to make a profit from those eager to escape the terrible poverty in their own country.
Citizens of Romania have, since January 1 of this year, had unrestricted access to the British job market and it is no longer the case that blue-collar workers are restricted to quota schemes in just agricultural and food processing sectors.
The right to work in the UK since 2007 but the scrapping of internal borders within the European Economic Area has led to unemployed residents in both countries being targeted by agencies offering work within the British economy.
And Romanian jobsites have seen an upsurge in vacancies for jobs ranging from private hire and taxi drivers to care home workers, construction, engineering and hotel staff.
For example, Tjobs.ro plays host to over 200 employment agencies and includes adverts for carpenters, doctors, catering staff and even topless dancers in nightclubs for, “Monthly earnings of between £1,000 and £10,000”.
There are also adverts from agencies looking for Romanian men and women seeking to work as a private hire or taxi driver. Several of them also hold recruitment fairs to showcase the opportunities available in the British hire and reward market with tempting “possible” earnings of between £500 and £700 per week.
OFFERS OF EXPLOITATION?
Harry (not his real name) is a licensed London private hire operator and contacted PHC after he received an email from a recruitment agency offering him private hire drivers who had been trained and licensed in Romania, for work in cities in Britain.
Harry, like most operators, wants new drivers to replace those who leave his company. But he specialises in the up-market part of the hire and reward trade and wanted drivers with more experience than what the agency was offering. And so he asked that his name and company be removed from their email recruitment list.
The firm agreed to do so. But the next day Harry noticed the firm had also checked out his Linked-In internet details. This aroused his curiosity, which led to him doing a bit of research on the agency.
Harry did some checks and found out the agency was offering training, sometimes with accommodation, plus airfare to the UK and a cab job in the city in which they had revised their topographical exams for, but not asking for any sort of fee in return. He also discovered the agency took a commission-type fee from private hire and taxi firms who took on any new Romanian drivers.
Nothing wrong in that at all. But further research by Harry revealed what he claims is a system of exploitation between the recruitment agency and cab companies that allegedly leave the drivers trapped in a modern form of slavery.
“Some of the cab firms that take on these drivers also provide company cars and accommodation. These drivers have no option but to accept the offer as they are strangers in a foreign country with no money or knowledge to do otherwise.
“Company cars don’t come cheap, and the living quarters are often shared with fellow drivers in a similar situation, crammed into what is sometimes just a one bedroom flat.”
Harry accepts the cab companies do provide work for these drivers but claims that some are left with very little money, or none at all, because the owner takes their vehicle and accommodation costs out of their wages before they receive them.
“So, at the end of each week, the owner might say; ‘There’s no money left for you. You haven’t covered your vehicle, accomodation and living expenses’.
“These drivers are now completely stuck. They are stranded in a strange town in a foreign country and working more or less for free. They can’t change jobs because they don’t own their car and they can’t change flats because they never earn enough to move.”
Harry believes the Romanian drivers are being exploited. Much like women trafficked around the world for prostitution, where girls are offered work in a different country but then find themselves working in the sex trade for a debt that they can never pay off.
“These drivers simply can’t go home, they have no money. They are isloated and unable to work for anyone else work and stuck in accommodation, controlled by the cab company, where they can’t afford to live or move out.
“I believe that this is just another way of trafficking people from one part of the world to another for profit.
“The drivers never earn the money that was promised and some of the companies that take them on are more than happy to do so because they are in effect making them work for free.
“These companies are happy to take on these drivers because they are a lot cheaper than local drivers. And even if they do manage to scrape together enough money to catch a bus home, there’s always the next batch.
“I don’t think these agencies and cab firms care, they’ve had their money’s worth out of them by then. But I am concerned that drivers are (allegedly) being conned into coming to the UK with promises of high pay, that never materialise and then trapped into a modern form of slavery that offers little chance of escape.”
ARE ROMANIAN DRIVERS BEING TAKEN FOR A RIDE?
PHC took the information supplied by Harry and did a search of internet forums for Romanian cab drivers who had been promised lucrative work opportunities in the UK.
The sites found were obviously written in Romanian, but PHC hit the Google translate button and was able to access the opinions of people who had been trained abroad for a cab driving job in a British city.
Alec wrote of working 12-hours-a-day for five months, for very little money, before finally leaving before, “I reach the grave or the asylum”.
He alleged that both himself and the other Romanian and foreign drivers at the company he worked for in the UK were treated as second class citizens and that plum jobs were only given out to those who bribed the controller.
He further claimed there were, ‘Many other Romanians still struggling to live at this miserable company’. But that he lived in hope that he would find, ‘Other companies in other cities that require drivers and are firm and fair’.
This negative opinion of recruitment agencies, that Harry said allegedly worked in cahoots with selected cab companies, was backed up by lotto, who described how a recruitment agency trained him and then paid for a £265 flight from Bucharest to Luton, so he could take a job as a taxi driver in a market town in Wiltshire.
He wrote of being put up in a house, ‘in the middle of no man’s land,’ that was full of, ‘bugs, beatles and mud baths, something like public toilets in Bacu’.
“I do the job of ensuring the continuity of the British Empire, of oppression and slavery of other nations,’ and of being over £2,000 in debt in just a matter of a few weeks” – Lotto
He inevitably returned home, ‘with no money,’ and although, ‘seriously shaken after the experience of being a taxi driver, had a very good opinion about the UK and British people in general’.On the other hand, Raluk Tudor wrote positively of how her husband had been trained by a recruitment agency in Romania and then found a position as a taxi driver with a cab company in England.
“I work so hard all day and night but still I have nothing” – Romanian private hire driver
She conceded that the money her husband earnt at the taxi firm connected to the recruitment agency he used was, ‘not as great as advertised,’ but added, ‘They are mostly nice people and it’s not the devil so black as some claim. What is more important is that this job is a great stepping stone for anyone who is willing to strive and succeed in the UK’.
TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY
This is not the first time that allegations have been made against recruitment agencies working cap-in-hand with cab companies to take advantage of people desperate to come and work in Britain.
PHC was contacted a number of years ago by two Romanians who were working in London as private hire drivers after being recruited by an employment agency back in their home country.
They alleged they were not paid the £500-a-week they had been promised and that they had suffered numerous deductions from their wages for unknown parking tickets.
They also claimed they had not received their £1,000 deposit back when they left the company.
One of the men further alleged they were forced to live in the PHV company’s flat, in “cramped, insanitary conditions”.
He said that back in Romania, he had a part-time job, “Working four hours a day and I had a better life than here. I work and work and work hard but still I have nothing”.
His colleague was equally as damning. “I want to work, but not in these conditions. I want to leave but I do not have money for accommodation, so how can I leave with what very little I earn?”
On the surface, the situation did not look good from the cab company’s point of view. But as always, there are two sides to every story.
The licensed private hire company said the two Romanians misunderstood the maximum earnings figure, as something available from day one rather than an amount to aim for after they had finished training on a beginner’s circuit for a number of weeks.
The firm was also adamant the two men had not been dumped in substandard housing. A spokesman for the PHV company said: “To suggest that we abuse our drivers with our offer of accommodation is disgraceful. We’ve got five houses and to say that they are overcrowded is rubbish.
“They don’t have to live in one of our houses but we make the offer because we know they probably haven’t got a lot of spare cash when they first arrive in the country. They have no access to social security benefits when they come to Britain so we let them stay rent free until their licence comes and they are earning money” – London private hire operator
As for the phantom PCN notices? “We lease our cars from a company that charges us an admin fee everytime they receive a parking ticket, bus lane ticket etc. We pass this onto our drivers as we simply can’t afford to pay for all the tickets. We do not make a penny out of any of them.”
And the non-returnable £1,000 deposit? “The contract, which all drivers sign when they first start, explains that the £1,000 is a standard insurance excess bond. If one of our drivers has an accident, then the lease hire company want the money from us.
“We pay it, not the drivers and we get it back in weekly increments. They haven’t paid anything upfront. If they accumulate the whole £1,000 and don’t have an at-fault accident then they get the full sum when they leave. But it’s not given by them upfront and it is absurd for a driver to demand £1,000 if he leaves after just three weeks. We do pay the full amount back though if a driver has accumulated it and we can definitely prove that we return it.”
SO ARE ROMANIAN DRIVERS BEING EXPLOITED OR NOT?
It is undeniable that Alec and Lotto did not enjoy their brief experience working as cab drivers in the UK. They didn’t earn the amount they thought they would and suffered what they allege was cramped, insanitary housing. And all the time running up a debt of commission paid by their cab firm owner to the recruitment agency, plus housing, vehicle and fuel costs.
But does this amount to human trafficking that is little more than a modern form of slavery, as alleged by London PHV operator Harry?
One internet forum for Romanians lists the advantages and disadvantages of being recruited by an agency and trained to work as a private hire and taxi driver in the UK.
It states: “There are good and bad companies, as in any field. And taxi companies often take advantage and impose high costs to pay for the car. Drivers know they have no choice but to accept. Initial costs are relatively high and an estimate would be that it would take around £2,000 from departure in Romania to the first day of actual work.”
This would be helpful advice indeed for anyone wishing to work as a cab driver in Britain, as it appears obvious that some recruitment agencies do talk up the possible income that can be earnt as a private hire or taxi driver. While not fully explaining the cost implications of what they have signed up to.
An agency is of course entitled to charge a fee for its services, but workers from Eastern Europe who want to come and work as a cab drivers in the UK must be made aware that the cost of their training, accommodation and vehicle will have to be paid for at some point in their new career.