The streets of Tunis, normally bustling with taxis in the early hours of the morning, were noticeably void of the bright yellow cabs on Monday, as the capital’s Union of Individual Taxi-Drivers underwent a day-long strike to voice long-term grievances against the government.
Over 90% of Tunis’s 16,000 taxi drivers stayed home on Monday, leaving thousands of transit-goers to find other means of transportation. The strike comes after months of unproductive negotiations with the Ministry of the Interior and Transportation, which taxi representatives claimed had been mostly unresponsive to their demands for reform prior to the strike.
According to President of the National Union of Individual Taxi-Drivers Moez Sallami, the union’s central demands include reforming the protocol for filing written complaints against taxi-drivers, relaxing the industry’s heavy tax burden, eradicating police abuse and mistreatment–including the issuance of excessive fines and penalties– and lifting stringent regulations on dress and grooming.
However, with tales of overcharging and lengthy unnecessary diversions commonplace among many in the capital; how much popular support the strike received remains to be seen.
“Our demands were not born today,” Sallami said to Tunisia Live, “We have been voicing these demands since 2011.”
Central to the industry’s complaints are allegations that law enforcement targets taxi drivers unfairly.
“We are fed up,” said one Taxi driver interviewed by Mosaique FM on the day of the strike, insisting that police continually use corrupt tactics, such as blackmail, to extract money from taxi drivers.
“You have to pay 150 drivers if they stop you wearing jeans,” another said.
Sallami, meanwhile highlighted what he considered to be flaws in the procedure for filing customer complaints against drivers.
When complaints are lodged against a taxi-driver, Sallami said, police almost always side with the customer. In most cases, riders can report the incident and identify the driver without leaving any of their own personal information. Additionally, taxi drivers are rarely appointed an attorney to help advise them on their case, Sallami added.
Under Tunisian legislation, taxi drivers may be fined between 60-1,000 dinars for certain infractions, such as refusing to drive a client to their preferred destination, driving beyond the authorized limit, or failing to produce required documents to a law enforcement agent. According to taxi drivers, such fines are implemented inconsistently and unfairly–and police frequently level hefty penalties over relatively minor infractions.
One driver spoke of having over 2,000 TND in outstanding fines over an unkempt beard, while a third said he was fined 1,000 TND after police found a simple coffee-glass resting near the front seat, surmising that it could be used as a weapon in altercation.
Mohamed Chemli, a representative for Transport of Tunis–the company that provides the city’s public transport services (such as metros and buses)–commented that the lack of taxi drivers strained the country’s transportation services and created severe traffic problems.
“Our company cannot accommodate all the customers that rely on taxis,” he said to Radio IFM.
Neither the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Transportation was able to be reached for comment after repeated attempts to contact them.