40% of striking New York taxi drivers are South Asians: Jaslin Kaur
Former Queens City Council candidate says it’s important for immigrants to speak out on taxi driver rights
New York City is known for its high peaks as much as for its iconic yellow taxis. Yellow cabs, a quintessential New Yorker feature, have been immortalized in countless movies and TV series.
But since October 20, taxi drivers have been on a hunger strike in front of the town hall. Taxi drivers, 94 percent of whom are immigrants, are protesting the city’s $ 65 million medallion debt relief program, citing that it is woefully insufficient.
They are joined by Bhairavi Desai, director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an organization that represents more than 20,000 taxi drivers in New York.
Not only the drivers, activists, but some city officials and common people also took the lead to join the protesting taxi workers.
Jaslin Kaur, a former Queens City Council candidate, has been at the forefront of the Taxi Medallion debt crisis. The daughter of a New York taxi driver, Kaur has gone on a hunger strike with the drivers.
Amid her protest duties and active campaigning, she spoke to the American Bazaar about the ongoing hunger strike, the Medallion Debt Crisis and why it is important for immigrants to America to be heard on the rights of taxi drivers.
Read: Taxis beat rideshare services in New York City: Morgan Stanley data (July 11, 2016)
A B: Tell us about the medallion crisis affecting New York taxi workers. What are they protesting against and what has the state’s response been so far?
JK: Around 2001, Mayor (Mike) Bloomberg was looking to close a $ 4 billion budget deficit. For example, the city auctioned off thousands of medallions, valued at at least $ 200,000. It was a chance for New York immigrants to own their businesses and operate their own vehicles.
But over time, predatory lenders began to get involved in the locket program, inflating market prices so that the value of the lockets skyrocketed to around $ 1 million. He was doomed to crash.
NYC let Uber and Lyft enter the city – taxis couldn’t compete. And so the medallion system fell apart and now many drivers who bought their medallions years ago owe their lenders an average of $ 500,000.
Today, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a group of 25,000 members, is calling on the city to restructure the loans to make the deals fairer.
It includes monthly payments of up to $ 800 so drivers can earn higher wages and, more importantly: a city-backed guarantee so drivers are protected against defaulting on loans.
So far, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, more than 50 state lawmakers and 12 members of the US Congress back the plan, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We hope to meet with Mayor De Blasio soon to get our plan approved as soon as possible.
A B: Why New York Taxi Drivers Go On A Hunger Strike What called such an extreme measure?
JK: The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents more than 25,000 taxi workers, went on a hunger strike on October 20, after camping outside New York City Hall 24/7. 7 for almost a month.
We have degenerated into a hunger strike because we already know that locket debt is a life and death situation. Thus, we refuse food for as long as it takes to get the debt relief we deserve.
A B: Speaking of the locket debt crisis, explain what went wrong and how the situation got out of hand?
JK: The medallion debt crisis has been going on for decades, with many predatory lenders providing medallions, which are licenses to operate a yellow cab in New York City.
Between unfair loan deals and the city allowing apps like Uber and Lyft in New York City without regulation, the taxi market has collapsed. And so thousands of families across town took on an average of $ 500,000 in debt.
The strike aims to win a debt relief plan that protects drivers from defaulting on these loans with a city-backed collateral policy and makes NYC affordable again for working class immigrants.
A B: The problem must be of particular importance to you, because your father was a yellow cab driver in New York. Tell us how the locket debt affected immigrant families?
JK: This is particularly close to my heart because my father has been driving the yellow taxi for almost 30 years. The impact of medallion debt had an impact on our family long before the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is no pension plan for drivers like my father. So if we don’t win now, it will be passed down to my generation.
Read: ‘I’ve lost everything’: Desperate New York taxi drivers start hunger strike for debt relief (October 21, 2021)
A B: Thus, the majority of New York taxi drivers are immigrants, especially many are South Asians. What was the involvement of the South Asian community?
JK: Yes, so the majority are immigrants, around 94 percent. Of which about 40 percent are South Asian.
NYC will have the first group of South Asian city council members elected to power this year and they have been a tireless advocate for taxi drivers, even going on hunger strike themselves.
I think this shows that we have a lot of work to do to support working class South Asians in low-paying jobs: taxi drivers, cashiers, delivery service.
But I am hopeful that elected officials like Zohran Mamdani (New York State Assembly Member from District 36) and local organizations like Desis Up & Moving (DRUM) will stand up for taxi drivers. It gives me a lot of hope.