By Kevon Browne
St. Kitts and Nevis (WINN): Taxi drivers are praising the government’s handling of COVID-19 but pressing for answers about the revival of the tourism industry.
On Monday’s edition of the WINN weekday talk show VOICES, hosted by Sylvester “King Socrates” Hodge, guest Venitia Williams-Morlas, co-owner of MV Tour and a Taxi Driver thanked the government for the introduction of the EC$120 million stimulus package, for people and businesses affected by the COVID-19 economic disruptions, and highlighted the importance of registering as a self-employed person at Social Security.
“I know personally, for me as a small business owner, it was very beneficial to both myself and my husband. It was beneficial to our household when there is no income at this time coming in. And so, I just want to thank, you know, the government and Social Security for providing us that.”
“It is unfortunate that some persons were not able to benefit from this based on the fact that they were probably not registered. You know, for whatever reason, and I am just hoping that going forward now, they would realize the importance of it. My fellow taxi drivers as well, and they would know, you know, move forward to rectify that,” Williams- Morlas said.
The three month economic stimulus package expired at the end of June and it’s unclear if an extension is likely.
The six-month moratorium allowed by banking and non-banking entities are to end in September/October this year.
Williams-Morlas also raised the issue of communication between taxi operators and tourism officials as the economic situation continues and suggested the inclusion of taxi drivers in the Hired Bus sector as an interim measure.
“…What about the Bus Association? Are they willing to open the doors for persons who have buses and would like to have an ‘H’?” asked Williams -Morales while requesting a discussion on the goals of the ministry. Basically, let us know what their, maybe not short-term goals for us are, but the long-term goals. There are times I get emails saying what they’re doing currently and so forth, but sometimes it’s a conversation…”
The issue of private car services was also raised in the program. Are those private services helping in the current situation?
A caller to VOICES argued that private car services are necessary but that view was not shared by Williams-Morlas.
“I heard what you’re saying. We appreciate your sentiments that you’ve expressed, but it you know, nothing is ever black and white. There’s always some color to it. UBER is a transportation service it’s not necessarily from what I know, taxi service per se in terms of how we do taxi service here, the taxi drivers pay a lot of taxes. Um, the first thing is we insurance a driver can pay anywhere between $5000 to $2500 annually on the bus, depends on the year… In terms of maintenance… is about $10,000 annually and that’s just on the lower end of it.”
One definition of UBER is described as “a Smartphone application for ridesharing that pre-calculates the fare, estimates a time of arrival, as well as offers the option to split the cost with additional riders; all while conveniently charging your credit or debit card when the ride is complete.”
Williams-Morlas, for her part, called for a leveled playfield for both private services and taxi drivers.
“I don’t think my co-host is saying that we want to block anybody. But what we’re saying is it must be a level playing field because you cannot tax us on one end, we have to have a ‘T’ and we have to go through all these seminars and training and all of this is a cost. We have to get a decal. This is a totally separate thing from the license we have to get. We have to get a decal. We have to buy… fire extinguisher. We have to get all kinds of things to put in the bus… there is a general cost that the person with the UBER does not have to, at this moment.”
Socrates reported on a suggestion he made at a meeting was held with tourism officials to discuss the UBER issue.
“One of the things that could be addressed is that if they allowed operating, we should channel work through the taxi fraternity. I was accused of suggesting that we go and work for Uber that was not what I was saying.”
He went on to express the need for private car services to meet the same standards that taxis have to meet in the travel industry.
The operations of privately owned cars as a car service without appropriate regulations and oversight, insurance issues and liability for paying passengers were some of the issues of concern.
Barry Wyatt President of the St. Kitts Taxi Association called in to explain why he is not in support of linking the taxi association with the private car services.
“This whole notion of having the UBER Service linked with taxi drivers, I’m saying no. If that’s the case… we would like to meet with the Inland Revenue Department and the authorities.”
Wyatt also proposed a third plate through the government specifically for special services outside the parameter of taxi services or hired bus services.
“Now, I am saying, the powers, that maybe the government, the cabinet; what they need to do is enforce a third plate. And here we go with the third plate; it’s a special purpose vehicle because we have persons with vehicles for disabilities.”
A leveled playing field is needed, in this writer’s opinion. Either the government imposes the same taxes on private car services and their operators (both driver and vehicle) as taxi drivers or they allow tax breaks for taxi drivers considering the dawning recessions. As suggested, allow all taxi drivers to operate under one business license as the taxi association to lessen the financial burden and foster fair and balanced competition.