China taxi drivers strike for third day, some return to work

HANGZHOU, China Wed Aug 3, 2011 1:29am EDT

Policemen walk past a crowd gathered near the homes of taxi drivers in the suburbs of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province August 2, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song

Policemen walk past a crowd gathered near the homes of taxi drivers in the suburbs of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province August 2, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Aly Song

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HANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - A strike by Chinese cab drivers in the eastern tourist city of Hangzhou stretched into a third day on Wednesday, in the latest unrest highlighting frustration among migrant workers struggling with rising costs and burdensome fees.

More than 100 drivers, mostly from central Henan province, and their families, gathered under a bridge in the suburbs of the scenic city about 190 km (120 miles) southwest of Shanghai, demanding higher wages.

"They tell us, 'if you are so unhappy, why don't you go back.' They don't treat us seriously because we are not from here," said a driver, who appeared to be in his late 40's and who declined to give his name.

"I have been driving for a long time, and this is the first time I have been on strike. Xiamen was great, but the daily takings were low so I came to Hangzhou. But with fuel price rises, it is getting too expensive."

Cabbies in Hangzhou say they make about 500 yuan a day ($77), but pay out nearly 80 percent of that in fuel and vehicle rental fees.

About 1,500 disgruntled taxi drivers went on strike at rush hour on Monday morning, according to state media. Cabbies said many thousands more had gone off the job.

Still, more taxis were seen on the roads in the city center, a popular tourist destination with the famed West Lake, on Wednesday compared with the previous day when they had all but deserted the area.

The strike in Hangzhou follows a series of similar protests by taxi drivers in other cities across the nation, demanding higher wages as well as unrest among young migrant workers who make up a growing share of the country's workforce.

ANGRY MOBS

In Hangzhou and many other Chinese cities, taxis are controlled by companies or individuals which hold operating licenses. They take rents from the drivers, growing numbers of whom in smaller cities are migrants from poorer parts of the countryside.

Though China's 150 million or so rural migrant workers have gained better wages and treatment in recent years, the gap between them and established urban residents remains wide, fuelling anger about discrimination and ill-treatment.

"My husband makes so little. Many days he even makes a loss. It's very hard to live," said a woman attending the protest, cradling her nine-month old son.

China's consumer price index hit a three-year peak of 6.4 percent in June, with leaders in Beijing saying that fighting inflation is their policy priority.

In June riots flared over three days in a city in the southern export hub of Guangdong province, where rampaging mobs smashed and burned government offices, pelting police with stones and bottles and overturning scores of vehicles.

Hangzhou city's transportation bureau has promised to raise taxi fares by the end of October and an offer of a temporary fuel subsidy of 1 yuan ($0.16) per trip, which many cab drivers have said was too little.

Other city governments have raised fares recently. Shanghai, the country's most populous and expensive city, boosted fares by 2 yuan last month.

Strikes by taxi drivers in China have also become more frequent as soaring costs have pinched profits for drivers. Truck drivers at a container port in the financial hub of Shanghai walked out in April to protest against rising expenses.

Guo Yushan, a researcher at privately funded think thank Transition Institute, documented in a recent study nearly 60 taxi strikes in Chinese cities over recent years.

"It is clear that drivers are in a weak position against companies," wrote Guo.

"What really needs a rethink is the regulatory policies of the government. It's the government's policies that have step by step created the complex picture of the taxi industry today," citing the often shady system of tendering out operating licenses for taxi companies, unlawful fees, price restrictions, and abuses by traffic police.

(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing, Writing by Kazunori Takada; Editing by Ken Wills and Daniel Magnowski)

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