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No justice, no cabs

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Ask cab driver Daniel H. Mariam about working conditions for people like him in Arlington and he’ll tell you it’s nothing less than “modern day slavery.”

Mariam, 60, hails from Ethiopia and provides for a family of five, including a son at Virginia Commonwealth University and a daughter he can’t afford to send to community college. He works 70 to 80 hours per week if he’s lucky. Yet he says that Yellow Cab company makes more off his taxi fees than he does driving it.

He starts his day in debt with $70 owed for insurance and gas, not including maintenance. Each week he pays $205 in fees to Yellow Cab, even though he says his contract stated $145. Each year he pays $15,000 in tariffs and $5,000 in ownership fees for his taxi, even though he paid $30,000 for the hybrid car he says Yellow Cab forced him to buy. And if the hybrid battery dies, he has to pay $3,500 to replace it.

Despite what he pays to own his cab, Mariam says that he can’t transfer ownership to another driver in case he needs to be with his mother in Ethiopia because the temporary driver couldn’t recoup the cost of fees through fares while he or she had the car.  

Mariam says that this exploitative red-tape behavior has been business as usual at Yellow Cab for the past 50 years. This is possible, Mariam says, because he and other drivers are considered independent contractors with few rights and “no value as human being[s].”

Three months ago, Mariam says that he had a meeting with company managers to address the grievances of 60 organized Yellow Cab drivers. He says that when he went into their office, they had a camera recording him to catch him if he said anything “wrong” which they could use to fire him.

Given these circumstances, Mariam has no regrets about lending his voice to lunchtime protest Tuesday at the Clarendon Metro station where he and 100 other immigrant cab drivers spoke out against what they describe as an excessive and unjust licensing system.

After rallying at the station, the drivers dispersed to carry out the planned action: putting Arlington on notice by taking up all public parking spaces then slowly driving their taxis around the station, as well as marching through the district with signs and chants of “no justice, no cabs” and “respect human rights for taxi drivers.”

Miriam and the other drivers want copies of their signed contracts, the ability to transfer ownership of their cars to other drivers and adequate review of the drivers’ proposal by the Arlington County board.

As Mariam left Tuesday’s protest, he had one more message to his company owners: “I came here today. I knew what I was getting into. If you’re going to fire me, do it tomorrow.”