MADRID: Since a state of emergency was declared in Spain on March 14 in an attempt to combat the coronavirus pandemic, cities have become ghost towns. There are few people on the streets, which is threatening the survival of many businesses.
The taxi and ride-sharing sector is particularly badly affected, with activity paralyzed by the lockdown, a lack of tourists and the cancellation of events. Most companies and drivers report steep declines in the number of customers of more than 90 percent and, as a result, earnings have plummeted.
According to the City of Madrid website, there are about 15,000 taxi cabs in the city, the drivers of which are counting the financial cost of the health crisis. Taxi associations across the country are highlighting the effect the dramatic situation is having on the sector and drivers’ lives.
“We had to reduce the fleet by 50 percent,” said Jose Miguel Funez, spokesman for the Professional Federation of Taxi in Madrid. “The financial situation is really bad for everyone in the sector, especially since we still have to pay license expenses to the state every month. So far we have received no help from the government.”
Taxi drivers are struggling to get by on what little work they can find. Fernando Garcia is a self-employed cabbie in Madrid who got his license in December last year, which means he has more expenses to pay than some other drivers.
“We used to work eight to 10 hours a day to get a good income,” he said. “We could even do 16 hours, which is the maximum permitted, although it is a lot of work. Now we accept as little as 5 hours and we get no more than 40 euros a day.”
Some drivers cannot live on such a low income and have had to apply for a temporary redundancy scheme provided by the Spanish government called ERTE.
“I used to work 5 days a week, between 14 and 16 hours,” said Antonio Salvador, who also drives a taxi in Madrid “When the government announced the state of emergency we started to get fewer and fewer clients, and it was impossible to survive with this. I was earning as little as 15 euros a day. I still had to buy gas, give a percentage to my boss and pay for health insurance. My situation was getting worse and I had to request an ERTE.”
This crisis has also hit drivers who work for ride-sharing services such as Uber and Cabify, a sector known in Spain as VTC (private car with driver). Raul Siguero, a Cabify driver in Madrid, said that the minimal amount of work that is available represents a huge decline from pre-coronavirus levels.
“We do many fewer journeys compared with before,” he added. “I used to earn about 5,500 euros a month. This has been reduced to approximately 1,300 euros, which illustrates the bad situation we are facing.”
Other companies that provide specialist car services are also facing a financial crisis. Pedro Núñez is CEO of VIP Class, which provides cars and drivers in Madrid and Barcelona, primarily to business clients, tourists and people attending events.
“Now we can barely cover the monthly company expenses, excluding the employees’ salaries,” he said. “The daily average of a driver’s billing was 300 euros, now it is much less. It doesn’t exceed 65 euros. We had to apply for ERTE for half of the staff. We assigned the other half to work for VTC services such as Uber and Cabify to help us survive until this crisis ends.”
In addition to financial effects of the pandemic, drivers are also worried about their health and safety, in particular when they are taking passengers to and from medical centers, or healthcare workers to and from the homes of sick patients. Some hygiene measures have been implemented in an attempt to protect drivers and passengers but challenges remain.
“We have five machines that disinfect the cars of our 6,000 members on a daily basis at our headquarters, but we are running out of (sanitizing) gel, masks and gloves as we don’t receive any supplies from the government,” said Professional Federation of Taxi spokesman Funez. “We are looking for our own solutions to protect our drivers.”
Taxi driver Garcia said: “Most of the passengers in the mornings are office workers but in the afternoon we take a lot of people to or from hospitals, so I need to clean constantly. I have disinfectant that I obtained from the pharmacy, the same one that they use to clean their counters. I clean after every two or three journeys, whenever I consider it appropriate.”
Despite the lack of proper safety and health measures and supplies, taxi and VTC drivers continue to provide free travel for health workers who need to visit infected patients in their homes. Funez explained that his federation provides an app called Pide Taxi (Order a taxi) that healthcare workers can use to request free transport to visit elderly patients and people in remote areas. Since the emergency began, they said more than 75,000 free assistance have been provided.