Taxi drivers tuning in for industry's $215M lawsuit against city

Garish Beri has been watching the lawsuit on Zoom from his phone.  (Sara Frizzell/CBC - image credit)
Garish Beri has been watching the lawsuit on Zoom from his phone. (Sara Frizzell/CBC - image credit)

At hotels, the train station and malls across the city, taxi drivers waiting for fares are glued to their phones — enrapt by the long-awaited industry lawsuit against the City of Ottawa.

The $215 million lawsuit alleges the city did not take reasonable steps to protect taxi plate owners when it allowed Uber to operate in September 2016.

Plates, issued by the city, are required to drive a cab. Their number is limited, so plate owners planned their retirement on the idea they could sell them for a considerable sum. After Uber entered the market that changed.

Now, six years after the parent company of Capital Taxi filed the lawsuit, the case is finally being heard.

Four weeks into the case that's expected to last at least seven weeks, taxi drivers are tuning into the court proceedings on Zoom, dropping into the actual courtroom when they have time and breaking down what they've heard in WhatsApp groups.

Ghassan Skaff — taxi driver for 35 years

Sara Frizzell/CBC
Sara Frizzell/CBC

Ghassan Skaff's family is invested in the outcome of this lawsuit. He was driving with his wife's plate on Monday, but two of his brothers also own plates.

"We're crossing our fingers. All of us, you know, this is the last straw. This is the last chance, hoping that something will benefit the drivers," he said.

"We've been suffering for a long, long time. And we've been waiting for this for a long, long time."

He said he's following online and has been going to the courthouse when he has a chance. He's encouraged that the case has been able to air some drivers' concerns about discrimination.

"If we kept quiet, it doesn't mean it wasn't happening. It was happening. But now it's coming up in court because now it's out in the open."

Even just a gesture would be nice that they recognize that yes, we were mistreated. - Ghassan Skaff, taxi sriver

Skaff said that regardless of how the lawsuit ends, it will be the end of many drivers' careers.

"Many guys are going to quit, you know, nobody wants to work forever."

Skaff sold a house he owned with his brother in 2005 to buy a taxi plate for $160,000. He said the house would have gone up in value, but the plate is now worth $6,000.

WATCH | 'We're crossing our fingers': Taxi drivers keeping an eye on industry lawsuit proceedings

He said he bought the plate because he wanted steady employment, but then the city changed the rules with Uber.

"That hurt me and many of my other friends. If we get something out of the lawsuit, that's fine. I mean, even just a gesture would be nice that they recognize that yes, we were mistreated."

He said the city needs to recognize the service it will lose, if drivers can't afford a living.

"There are lots of old people that need to go to hospitals. They don't take Uber. There's a lot of people that do groceries, they don't take Uber. There's a lot of people who don't have credit and debit card. They can't take Uber."

George Alkhouri — taxi driver for 33 years

Sara Frizzell/CBC
Sara Frizzell/CBC

George Alkhouri was a boat captain before coming to Canada to avoid war in Lebanon. He wanted to keep doing that, but family here convinced him to be a taxi driver.

He bought his plate for around $85,000 in 1990 from the wife of a driver who'd died. He paid it off in monthly instalments of $1,000 over several years.

After paying off the plate, Alkhouri continued to put in 16-hour days driving to pay off the mortgage on his house, then he sent four kids to university. He's still helping out his youngest in Montreal, but would like to be headed toward retirement.

He said he can't keep up the long days now that he's 62 years old, but is still out 10 to 12 hours a day.

Alkhouri estimates taxi drivers lost about 60 per cent of their business to Uber when it started and the business hasn't returned.

Things were painfully slow during the pandemic — so much so that he used his wife's car to drive Uber Eats for a while.

We are fully dependent on the plate price and the renting. - Garish Beri, taxi driver

"It was not easy for me, working at delivery. I am not young," Alkhouri said.

Now his wife is back to work and that's not an option, but he said in the winter people take more cabs so this month it's manageable to pay bills with the help of his wife's salary.

"Everything's changed now. Before [when] I would be like 65 years old, I'd rent the plate and with my pension [I'd be] OK. Now, nothing. The plate [is worth] zero. Nobody rents. I can't find anybody to share with me."

He said he understands why new drivers aren't getting into the industry. Alkhouri estimates he makes about $5 an hour these days and business is still slow with federal employees mainly working from home.

Garish Beri — taxi driver nearly 40 years

Sara Frizzell/CBC
Sara Frizzell/CBC

Garish Beri has been driving a cab for nearly 40 years. He started driving out of university in 1983 when his friend suggested he could make decent money.

"It's a freedom, you know you can work as much as you want and you'll never be broke.… But the hours, you had to put in a lot of hours to make money, that's for sure," Beri said.

He saved up and bought his taxi plate in 1991 for around $100,000.

The city required he take a three-week taxi course at Algonquin College — the course covered customer service and working with customers with disabilities and cost $1,200. Uber drivers never had to take it.

"I'm 61 years old now. I have to work till 80 years [old] because there is no retirement," Beri said. "We are fully dependent on the plate price and the renting."

Beri said, in fact, he has a friend who's 80 that's still driving a taxi for that reason.

He said most plate owners are tuning in to proceedings whenever they can.