Curled up in sleeping bags, surrounded by signs reading “Uber is illegal” and “Stop unlicensed ride sharing operations now,” three hunger strikers and a handful of supporters set up under shelter on the stage in Nathan Phillips Square Tuesday afternoon.
They plan to stay outside city hall as long as they have to until Uber halts operating, according to hunger striker Behrouz Kamseh.
“We are not kidding. I left everything to come over here,” said Kamseh, who has been driving cabs for 28 years as an independent owner-operator.
The protest is a last-ditch effort to register their unhappiness without disrupting citizens, he said, as has been the case around the world with taxi drivers walking off the job.
“You want the public to be on your side. By shutting down the street, I don’t think we’d make the public happy,” Kamseh said.
He called the three strikers a “spark” that will, he hopes, spur more action. The others are Sukhvir Thethi and Behrouz Rayhanian, with the latter not yet present at Tuesday afternoon’s launch.
Danny Ryan, who showed support at Tuesday’s event, has been driving a taxi in Toronto for 34 years as an independent owner-operator. In the last two years his pay has decreased almost 50 per cent, he said, to seven dollars an hour; Ryan has child-support payments and says he can’t keep up with rent.
“This is not greed. We are just protecting our livelihood,” he said.
In an emailed statement, an Uber Canada spokesperson said the company was concerned to hear of the strike.
“We continue to believe that there is room for all of us to serve the different needs of Torontonians and hope that all parties can come together to find solutions that serve the best interests of riders and drivers,” said Susie Heath.
Last week, the federal competition watchdog called on municipalities to modernize taxi regulations, rather than crack down on Uber and other ride-sharing apps, to create a level playing field.
Uber recently halted operations in Calgary after a judge granted the city a temporary injunction while it works to update bylaws. The company is also petitioning to set up in Vancouver, where it is currently banned.
A September city council vote asked UberX — the company’s ride-sharing service — to halt its Toronto operations while council awaits a staff report, due in the spring, advising how to bring Uber under municipal bylaws. Uber Canada denied that request.
“I think Uber has a responsibility to the 400,000 riders who rely on us for transportation as well as the 16,000 drivers who rely on us for their income, so Uber intends to continue operating in the city of Toronto,” Uber Canada’s general manager Ian Black said at the time.
As per council’s vote, only licensed cars should be permitted to connect with passengers through the app from the California-based company.
Calling the strikers a “small group of individuals,” Councillor Janet Davis said the protest spoke to the frustration in the industry.
“I think what it demonstrates is the level of desperation that the taxi drivers in the city of Toronto are feeling right now,” she said.
Mayor John Tory has previously said it is not “practical” to ban Uber.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, he expressed disappointment in the drivers’ tactics.
“I’m sorry that they’ve chosen to have a hunger strike, because I don’t think these are effective ways of speeding up a process that we embarked on with as much urgency as possible,” Tory said.
Tory said the city is hoping to establish a “fair and equitable” regulatory regime that loosens rules for taxis and puts Uber under regulation for the first time, he said.
“And we do so in a way that benefits the travelling public as well, that doesn’t try to turn back the hands of time,” he added.