New York, United States — When Richard and Kenny Chow moved with their family to the United States from Taiwan in 1987, the iconic yellow cabs that ferry New Yorkers from place to place were a symbol of the city and the opportunity to a better life in their new home. .
This promise has also been carried forward by city officials. They promoted medallions – the certification needed to operate yellow cabs – as a reliable investment that, when paired with hard work, could unlock the doors to prosperity. It was a pitch that resonated with many immigrant workers.
According to New York City data, 40% of medallion owners are from South Asia.
For years, drivers say the deal has held firm. After buying a locket for $410,000 in 2006, Richard said he was “making the American dream come true, making money and supporting my family”, which then included two children.
He said his brother Kenny was so encouraged by the success that he saved up enough for a down payment on a locket he paid more than $700,000 for in 2009.
“He thought it was a very safe investment,” Richard told Al Jazeera. “He trusted the city.
But that trust has been shattered with the advent of app-based carpooling.
As Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services have taken off with consumers, work has become scarcer for New York taxi drivers.
Like other medallion owners, Kenny and Richard have found themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for certifications that have plummeted in value – and working a job that drivers tell Al Jazeera currently pays little more than the minimum wage.
According to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), a union with 21,000 members, the average driver-owner owes $550,000 on medallions worth just over $100,000 each.
Richard said he bought his locket in 2006 for $410,000. His monthly payments on his approximately $400,000 of unpaid debt are $2,766.
That’s why Richard and other taxi drivers have rallied outside New York City Hall for more than a month to demand meaningful debt relief they believe is crucial to their survival.
Central to their demands is a proposal from NYTWA that would cap outstanding medallion loan debt at $145,000 and monthly payments at $800.
The city has a $65 million debt relief program for medallion owners. But NYTWA blasted the scheme as “nothing more than a banker bailout” that “is going to give $65 million directly to banks and hedge funds that hold medallion debt in exchange for a negligible reduction in principal to them.” from”.
The current program also does not cover some people with medallion debt.
“According to the mayor’s plan, I am not eligible,” Kuber Sancho Persad, a 26-year-old yellow taxi driver who is on a hunger strike, told Al Jazeera. “Right now I have a debt of over $600,000 that my dad, who was a driver, left behind when he died four years ago. My mum got sick and couldn’t work, so I started driving full time in 2016.”
Driven to suicide
The plight of heavily indebted drivers has captured the attention of politicians such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. They called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to adopt NYTWA’s relief program proposal.
While the de Blasio administration has not issued a statement since the start of the hunger strike, an October 16 press release praised the city’s $65 million plan, saying it has so far has now provided more than $16 million in debt relief for medallion owners.
But some New York City officials believe the current debt relief program is insufficient.
“The city’s current plan provides minimal assistance in loan restructuring where the owner-driver and the lender can agree on the terms,” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer told Reuters. Al Jazeera in a statement. “But for hundreds, if not thousands, of driver-owners, the gap is just too big.”
“NYTWA has proposed an orderly way to enable debt reduction that will protect both drivers and lenders,” Stringer added. “Without it, there will be more bankruptcies, more despair and more ruined dreams.”
Drivers say the mayor was unresponsive. Thus, in a tactical escalation, several of them began a hunger strike on October 20 at noon.
Richard Chow, now 63, is one of them. Sitting in a chair alongside drivers from India, South Korea, Romania and Poland, Chow says one driver is conspicuously absent: his brother Kenny.
“When the medallion lost its value, it was devastated. He lost everything,” Richard said.
Struggling with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, Kenny Chow took his own life in 2018, one of nine drivers who have killed themselves in recent years.
“I lost my brother. I was heartbroken,” Chow said.
While the Medallion once provided a path to the American Dream for immigrants, it has also brought substantial revenue to the city. Taxi medallions brought more than $850 million in revenue to the city across the administrations of Bill di Blasio and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to a 2019 New York Times investigative series. that prices were becoming artificially inflated by industry leaders pushing drivers towards exorbitant prices. loans.
Chime Gyatso, a taxi driver who emigrated from India in the late 1990s and is currently on a hunger strike, said the city promoted the medallion as a good investment.
“They were selling medallions for a million dollars,” he said. “The city cheated on us. I bought a medallion for $850,000 in 2014. With Uber and Lyft, there’s nothing to do, so how do I pay the money? I still owe over $600,000.
The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on passenger numbers has also made life increasingly difficult for yellow cab drivers.
Wain Chin, a 54-year-old driver from Myanmar who is on hunger strike, owes more than $570,000. “Some nights I can’t sleep because I think about how I’m going to pay,” he said. “We have to compete with Uber and Lyft, and they have so many cars on the street. We hardly earn minimum wage anymore. Even in my lifetime, I will not be able to repay the loans.
While the stakes are high, pilots say the feeling of fighting together has been invigorating.
“We are putting our bodies on the line. Without relief, there will be more pressure on the rider,” Wain Chin said. “I hope the mayor listens to us. Even with his plan, the debt is too heavy.
If the hunger strike does not lead to the adoption of the NYTWA plan, former yellow cab driver and current NYTWA organizer Mohammad Tipu Sultan says the drivers will continue to fight. “We will continue to build momentum,” he said. “The mayor needs to see how big we are, how powerful we are. We run the city. »