NEW YORK CITY - Upon learning that New York taxicab veteran Nicanor Ochisor had hanged himself in his garage, Nigerian-native driver Emanuel Agbai was hardly at a loss for words.
“I’m even surprised that there are no more drivers committing suicide or going on some sort of rampage at this time,” Agbai told VOA. “This business has been so destroyed.”
Ochisor, a Romanian immigrant who worked in the industry for nearly 30 years, ended his life on March 16, the fourth professional taxi driver to do so in New York City in as many months.
WATCH: NY's Immigrant Taxi Drivers Despair as Taxi Industry Slumps
Like Agbai, Ochisor owned a medallion, a license required for all of New York’s yellow taxi cabs. A prized possession worth over $1 Million in 2014, its price has dropped to roughly one-fifth that amount today, coinciding with the rise of app-based services like Uber and Lyft.
Drivers who borrowed to purchase medallions now face an out-sized debt.
“We are sick and tired of burying our brothers,” said an impassioned Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance at a demonstration in lower Manhattan.
“Owner-drivers are going through foreclosures and bankruptcies. Green cab drivers have been entirely abandoned. Livery [limo] drivers are trying to scrape by, and even Uber and Lyft drivers are barely making ends meet,” Desai said.
The number of yellow cabs in New York City is capped at over 13,000. But for-hire cars like Uber, which face no such limits and offer flexible pricing, have burgeoned since their debut in 2012 — to more than 60,000 to date.
As a result, medallion owner-drivers often find themselves deep in debt, unable to sell or lease their vehicles.
Long shifts, little recompense
The deepening crisis hits home for tens of thousands of immigrants, who make up more than 90 percent of the city’s fleet of professional drivers. Taxicab and for-hire workers alike are reeling from their losses and find themselves working much longer hours to make up for fewer pickups.
“I’m not going out to restaurants or spending my money on trips on weekends, I’m working seven days a week,” said Mahmoud, an Uber driver from Palestine who didn’t want to provide his last name.
Like his colleagues in the taxicab industry, whom he calls his “teachers,” Mahmoud works 14-16 hour shifts to provide for his wife and 1-year-old son. He takes his child to daycare in the morning and only returns once he is fast asleep.
Nahinder Behl, a yellow cab lessee from New Delhi, India, finds himself in a similar predicament.
“I didn’t have enough money to pay this month’s rent,” Behl said. “After lease and gas, you don’t make nothing for yourself. So you have to work like 15-16 hours what you would make before in 10 hours.”
A level playing field
Set against a backdrop of four purple coffins — representing each of the professional drivers who have committed suicide since December — drivers and members of New York’s taxicab union flooded the steps of New York’s City Hall to demand legislation requiring a cap on app-based for-hire vehicles.
Among the legislative proposals under review is a 2018 bill sponsored by council member Stephen Levin that would limit the number of new for-hire vehicles issued in the city. In 2015, similar cap legislation was considered, but ultimately not passed.
In the meantime, cab drivers see no other option than to raise their voices.
“Why is this injustice? They want to drive all these cab drivers into the coffin?” asked a distraught Nicolae Hent, a Romanian immigrant who called the late Ochisor his best friend and colleague of 30 years.
“He couldn’t take it. I’ll take it,” he told the City Hall crowd. “I’ll die fighting.”