By Elias Hazou
TAXI DRIVERS disrupted traffic in the centre of Nicosia on Monday as they demanded the government address what they said was a series of threats to their livelihoods.
Their gathering at the finance ministry had been pre-announced. But in the morning, having failed to get Finance Minister Harris Georgiades to see them, the cabbies used their cars to block major roads around the finance ministry building, causing a traffic jam in the area for about two hours.
Camped outside the ministry, the drivers jostled with police though no serious incidents were reported. The protesters later agreed to disperse on securing a promise from the minister that he would meet with them on Wednesday to discuss their grievances.
The protesters, who belong to the urban taxi drivers’ associations of Nicosia and Famagusta-Larnaca, have put forward a number of demands which they say the government has long been turning a deaf ear to.
Their chief demands include: subsidised fuel, a curb on the issue of taxi licences to lower the already high number of taxis on Cyprus’ roads and better regulation of ‘unfair’ competition their trade faces from illegal taxi services and bus networks.
They effectively want to be exempted from paying taxes on diesel, as fuel expenses account for as much as 45 per cent of their costs, said Akis Demosthenous, head of the Nicosia urban taxi drivers’ association.
Demosthenous had previously stated that his profession was bracing for a 65-70 per cent drop in business for 2014 while the number of taxi drivers in his trade continues to rapidly climb.
Speaking on Sigma television channel, Demosthenous apologised for any inconvenience to the public yesterday, but added that the drivers’ demands were just.
“We’re doing this for the survival of our families…we’re not asking for charity,” he said.
Conceding that cab fares are already high, Demosthenous said this was because the tariffs are set by the government.
But the cabbies want to avoid passing their business costs onto consumers via an increase in fares, he stressed.
High insurance premiums are another problem, because under an existing arrangement they are stuck with a single insurance provider and cannot shop around.
Demosthenous moreover complained that taxis cannot compete against the very low fares charged by urban buses.
“We would even agree for all Cypriots to get free bus rides, as long as foreigners pay the bus fare,” he said, in a perhaps unfortunate remark.
Most of the people using buses, especially in coastal towns in the summertime, are foreigners anyway, he added.
Meanwhile unlicensed taxis, whom he dubbed “pirates”, were making more money than those on the regulated side of the business.
“We know who these pirates are and we do report them to authorities. But when a case goes to court, the testimony of the customer is also needed. This never happens, because the customer – usually a tourist who’s left the country anyway – never shows up, and the case is dismissed.”
Demosthenous said he hoped Wednesday’s meeting with the minister would yield at least a quick fix for their problems.
In Paphos meanwhile, taxi drivers there staged a ‘warning’ two-hour work stoppage as a convoy of cars made its way from the international airport to the city. A delegation met with Paphos mayor Savvas Vergas, who promised to look into their demand for new taxi stops inside the town.