While many enjoy a quiet, peaceful ride, I confess that I enjoy the occasional friendly banter with my taxi or private hire driver.
Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic happened, my typical opening line would be: “How’s business these days?”
The responses have been mixed. Most will say it is improving, a few will say it is bad, even lesser will say that it is good.
And who can blame them? Besides the aviation and food service industry, point-to-point passenger transport drivers were amongst the worst hit by the pandemic.
But there are optimistic drivers who are thankful for what they have, and grateful for what they receive.
Justin Lim, 50, is one such person.
Problems Faced by Private Hire Drivers
Justin began life as a private hire driver sometime in 2016.
It was meant to be his post-retirement stint. Before that, he served in the Singapore Police Force for over 12 years and dabbled in investments.
He is currently also an executive committee member of the National Private Hire Vehicles Association (NPHVA).
He gave me insights into the private hire vehicle industry as well as the problems faced by many drivers.
Explaining that while the incentives were attractive, the role of a private hire driver was never meant to be a full-time job.
“If you look back to the past, Uber was never meant to be a full-time job. It was meant to supplement your existing income.
“Then sometime in 2018 to 2019, things [driver incentives] started to slow down. And of course, when the pandemic came, things became even worse.
“It was chaotic, that’s for sure. There were so little jobs available. You can wait for like two to three hours for a job, and for all you know, it could be a $6 job,” he elaborated.
In response to the fall in demand for point-to-point transport, the Government launched a $77 million Special Relief Fund to help drivers cushion their drop in income.
While most taxi drivers were able to receive up to $20 a day – $10 from the Government matched by $10 from taxi operators – Justin explained that the funding was a little more complicated for private hire drivers.
“Drivers were reimbursed $6 to $12 or something along that line. So the higher tiered ones got more and the lower-tiered ones got less.
“But you had to drive a certain number of trips and fall within a certain amount of acceptance and cancellation rates. So, it was tied to some form of criteria, which made a lot of drivers unhappy,” he explained.
While he empathised with his fellow drivers, he understood the factors that led to the difference in the assistance taxi and private-hire driver received.
Citing factors such as the difference in rental prices and the likelihood of taxi drivers doing the job full-time, he reasoned that it was only fair that taxi drivers received more help.
“Taxi drivers will have to rent their vehicles from the operator, whereas private hire drivers may not necessarily do so. They may rent from some other company or even be driving their own car,” he said.
Helping Himself, Getting Help and Upskilling
To help lessen his financial woes, Justin switched to a cheaper vehicle to lower his rental costs.
He shared: “I found a very good contract with a very cheap car. Around $200 a week. With the Government support of $10 a day, my rental was only $130 a week. It was extremely affordable.”
He also took up more courses to diversify his skillsets, allowing him to seek other employment opportunities.
Justin had always known that private hire driving was a part-time gig. He started putting himself through courses as early as two years ago, way before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had this $500 training credit [SkillsFuture Credit], so I used it for my tour guide course,” he said.
With tourism being one of the worst-hit sectors, I clarified with a raised brow: “Um, tour guide?”
To which he responded with a smile: “So there was no work for me, yes, but it was lucky for me in a sense. Because of that guide pass, I got into another association called Society of Tourist Guides Singapore, which offered me a job as a safe distancing ambassador. So from there, I drove and I did safe distancing ambassador work concurrently.”
And Justin did not rest on his laurels either. In June 2020, with the help of the NTUC Training Fund for Self-Employed Persons, he took up an Advanced Certificate in Learning and Performance (ACLP) – a course that helped him become a learning facilitator.
He also shared that he was a recipient of the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) – conceived by the Ministry of Manpower and administered by NTUC for those who did not auto-qualify.
On the Government grants, he shared: “They have been extremely helpful. During the pandemic, drivers are suffering. And drivers are a little bit different from other jobs. Basically, if you are in other jobs, you don’t work you don’t get a salary. In this job, you don’t work you still have to pay. You still have your sunk costs and you still have your car, which is your biggest liability.
“The $1,000, a month was obviously the biggest and the most helpful. That puts the drivers back into some form of normalcy.”
Drawing Lessons from Experience
Today, Justin spends most of his time aboard cruise ships as a cruise ship safety inspector, ensuring that safe management measures are adhered to. He still does private hire driving whenever time permits.
On his advice to other privare hire drivers, he said: “You need to start planning and start taking charge of your life. You cannot just sit around and wait for work.
“I still think this [the private hire driver sector] is a wonderful industry, basically because time is in your control. I was able to complete my courses and still work because of this freedom.”