Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

AUSTRALIA: Wanted – Taxi Drivers with Third World Degrees

Lili Tuwai

SYDNEY, Mar 14 1997 (IPS) - Syrus Razzaghipour has a medical degree from a university in Iran. A Kurdish refugee, he was refused medical registration because his degree is not recognised in Australia. So, Razzaghipour became one of Australia’s most over- qualified taxi drivers.

He drove taxis for four years while waiting in vain to start his medical practice. Today, besides driving a cab, Razzaghipour runs a florist’s shop in a Sydney suburb.

“If I had to do a job other than medicine, it would be taxi- driving. There’s good money in taxis,” says Razzaghipour. “It didn’t make a difference if I was driving taxis or doing anything else.”

Sydney’s taxi drivers are said to be the most educated in the world. Many of them are recent immigrants who hold graduate and even post-graduate degrees from Third World universities but have difficulty getting their academic qualifications recognised in Australia.

The New South Wales Taxi Council says there are over 20,000 taxi drivers in the Sydney metropolitan region, most of them migrants who prefer driving cabs to working in dirty factories.

But, Australia’s current race and immigration debate has made life difficult for taxi drivers who come in contact with a whole spectrum of society during the course of a workday.

Drivers report an escalation in verbal and physical attacks, prompting the state Labour Government to acknowledge the urgent need to address workplace safety issues for taxi drivers and to put in place a reform package for the taxi industry.

To get an idea of the ethnic diversity of Sydney’s taxi drivers, one only has to go to Sydney’s international airport on a busy morning and look at the taxi queue there.

Joe Xie holds a degree from a college in China and had several years experience working as an engineer there before migrating to Australia. Apart from driving a cab, he works part time in a take- away food outlet to boost his income.

Like many migrants in Australia, he had great difficulty getting a job that recognised his qualification. “In Australia most companies or bosses don’t care about the qualification, they care about experience in Australia,” says Xie.

He adds: “If you just came from overseas you will not have that experience, and maybe language is what makes it hard if you can’t speak good English as well.”

This is a Catch-22 situation: migrants cannot get jobs unless they have experience in Australia, and they do not have Australia experience because they cannot get Australian jobs.

Taxi-driving is classified here as a hazardous occupation. A safety report released last year found the extent of violence toward taxi drivers was “far larger than generally recognised”.

It said five taxi drivers have been murdered in Sydney since 1993, and another survey estimated as many as 2,200 assaults and 1,600 robberies of taxi drivers each year – and 90 per cent of them go unreported.

But Aslam Parvaiz, a commerce graduate from Pakistan, dismisses these dangers with a certain bravado. He says: “In my opinion, every job – whether you are working the night shift at the 7- Eleven or driving cabs – someone can come and kill you for one dollar. So no job is dangerous and every job is dangerous, but you have to do something for a living.”

Parvaiz, 22, has been driving taxis for four years while waiting to complete further studies in advanced accounting. He adds: “Most of my friends have degrees and are fully qualified. It’s not that they can’t get a job, it’s just that they expect more. Most of my friends are driving taxis so they can continue their studies.”

Mahoo Edanner, 33, holds an honours degree in political science from Bangladesh and has been driving taxis for two years. But his 12-hour work day prevents him from doing anything else.

“I have tried to change my job because of the long hours. I haven’t been able to pursue a career, and as time has gone by I have lost interest,” he says.

Nearly all migrant taxi drivers have experienced racism, ranging from mild verbal attacks calling them “wogs” to physical abuse.

“Anglo Australians don’t know much about other nations or other cultures. That is why they have the wrong thinking,” says Xie. “When there are two or three of them sitting behind you acting rude, what can you do?”

The state government plans to introduce safety measures for taxi drivers here, with satellite-based Global Positioning Systems and driver protection screens to be installed in all Sydney taxis by the end of June.

These systems are designed to allow police to pinpoint the location of a taxi driver in distress.

Meantime, with the Sydney 2000 Olympics not far away and Australia expecting a second tourism boom in the next few years, the Taxi Council is moving to take advantage of the ethnic diversity of its taxi drivers.

Already, a new initiative is in place to assist international visitors and customers with non-English speaking backgrounds: Taxis carry removable national flags that indicate languages other than English spoken by their drivers.

Languages available include Arabic, Cantonese, Filipino, French, Greek, German, Hindu, Hebrew, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lebanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese.

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