Tagesspiegel Newsletter 16.2.2023

Boris Buchholz conducted an interview with the taxi social pilot.

18 February 2023 by Klaus Meier 

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]


Sources: Tagesspiegel Newsletter - Namen und Nachrichten aus Ihrem Berliner Bezirk
Taxi social pilot criticises Berlinale sponsor Uber: "The festival should set up a taxi stop in front of every cinema",
Uber is ruining taxi companies: Taxi social pilot Klaus Meier thinks the decision to make Uber a main sponsor of the film festival is fundamentally wrong.

Interview: Boris Buchholz

There is only one taxi social pilot in Berlin, and his name is Klaus Meier. Born in 1960 in the Auguste-Viktoria Hospital in Steglitz, he grew up in Schützenstraße and was a pupil at Hermann-Ehlers-Gymnasium and was a taxi driver himself from 1985 to 2019. Although he once earned almost 1,000 marks one New Year’s Eve, "I can only do it as a hobby now because I don’t earn enough," he says in the preliminary interview. The taxi social pilot is employed by the Berlin Unemployment Centre (BALZ); the BALZ is financially supported by the Protestant church district of Teltow-Zehlendorf, among others.

Mr Meier, how are Berlin’s taxi drivers doing?

In one word: bad. Since I started driving taxis in 1985, turnover and wages have fallen, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. The last low point was the coronavirus lockdown, when turnover was down to less than five euros per hour. Since then, incomes have barely recovered and are usually well below the statutory minimum wage. The colleagues I speak to feel betrayed and sold out by everyone, by their bosses as well as by politics and society. "We’re treated like dirt," I often hear.

You know about this because you are a taxi social pilot. What is that, what exactly do you do?

My main task is to listen. I try to encourage people and help them in disputes with authorities and companies. Many official regulations are also opaque for taxi companies. I put the taxi drivers’ questions to politicians and administrators and try to reconnect threads of dialogue that have been broken. In the near future, I will be publishing a series of interviews with taxi colleagues that I have filmed over the past year. They are intended to counteract the bad image and show the importance of people behind the wheel for our city.

The Berlinale starts today - and you’re spoiling the festive mood by criticising Uber as one of the main sponsors. Why is that?

It’s the Uber company that’s putting people in a bad mood. It provides the system with which hire car drivers are exploited at dumping wages. It is ruining taxi companies and contributing to the fact that nobody can make a living from working as a taxi driver. The taxi companies have also played their part in the situation through years of trickery, but Uber has brought about damaging changes to the law, for example the abolition of the local knowledge test, and the establishment of numerous hire car companies that are ruining the taxi companies. The Berlinale management probably didn’t have any of this in mind and mistook Uber for a modern transport service provider. This is the result of the millions invested in pro-Uber PR.

How much is Berlin’s taxi industry already suffering from Uber and similar competition?

If things go on like this, there will be no taxi industry in the foreseeable future. Only companies that practise exploitation and reduce taxes and social security contributions will be able to keep up with Uber dumping, the others will pay the price. The problem is not just the Uber group, because the comparable platforms are no better. Basically, it’s about the global struggle for survival of small and micro businesses in need of protection against global corporations worth billions that want to conquer local markets with ruthless methods in order to then determine prices and working conditions on their own.

What do you think the Berlinale should do immediately?

I understand that the Berlinale cannot immediately cancel contracts concluded with Uber. However, the Berlinale should immediately set up taxi ranks directly in front of all cinemas and put up information boards about taxi and BVG public transport in the cinemas. In addition, it should work with BVG and taxi companies to analyse the flow of visitors during the film festival and develop a joint ecological transport concept for 2024 in the course of next year. Representatives of the trade union ver.di should also be involved to ensure that the working conditions of their colleagues are well organised.

Stopping in front of the cinemas: Could Berlin’s hackney cabs then jump straight in?

There are still over 5000 taxis in Berlin whose drivers would like to transport Berlinale guests. If stops are set up in front of the cinemas and the end of the film screenings is announced via the taxi control centre, they will certainly be there. The city of Berlin may even order this and the taxi companies must comply. Passengers would then always pay the same price set by the city for a journey and be protected from Uber’s unpredictable surge pricing.

Have there already been talks with the festival management? If so, what have they achieved?
There has been a discussion between the Berlinale management and a representative of the Berlin taxi industry. It was said that there were contracts with Uber and that it was a done deal. I then wrote to the Berlinale management and the relevant transport and cultural politicians and asked them to set up taxi ranks in front of the cinemas.

I didn’t discover any taxi films in this Berlinale programme. What would be a good subject for a film about Berlin’s coachmen?

The good taxi stories are on the street, so to speak, you just have to discover them and write them down. What moved me most was how ordinary people, who don’t even understand the meaning of the entries on their pay slips, are unscrupulously robbed of the wages they deserve. I would much prefer the story of the colleague who, like Till Eulenspiegel, tricks the bad guys and helps the good guys with his pranks. There are both characters, because we coachmen are sometimes the helpless ones and sometimes the victorious ones.

You are employed as a social counsellor at the BALZ: Why does the unemployment centre look after taxi drivers - they still have their jobs?

There are now unemployed taxi drivers, which is new and started with Uber’s incursion into the Berlin taxi market. TheBALZ (Berlin Centre for the Unenployed) is also there for poor workers who are struggling to make a living from their work. Almost all taxi drivers are now affected. The colleagues at the BALZ advice centre and at the BALZ advice bus help with questions about unemployment benefits and citizens’ benefits and provide support with the paperwork. Wealthy people pay lawyers and tax advisors, ordinary people have to do everything themselves, even if they are not trained to do so. The BALZ fills this gap and I do it for the taxi drivers.

Going back to your time as an active driver: what are your favourite stops in Steglitz-Zehlendorf?

They are always where the most "journeys" were to be made. That changed over the years. At first, in the 1980s, "Händel", which is the radio code, at the job centre was great. But the neighbourhood became poorer over time and I was increasingly drawn to the "Wiesenbaude" in affluent Lichterfelde. As a night-time traveller, I also liked "Mexico" at the S-Bahn station, because the whole of Zehlendorf, Nikolassee and Wannsee could be reached from there in just a few minutes. But that only worked as long as jobs were arranged by radio and you could apply for jobs further away if you knew the area well. As a day driver today, I would only line up at stops in Steglitz-Zehlendorf if there was at most one colleague ahead of me at the stop and in the radio queue. This is hardly ever the case. Today, the former East Berlin suburbs are the best "run".

And what do you like about the job?

I love my work as a taxi driver, but with the drop in income, disdain from passengers and road users has also found its way into everyday working life. That overshadows everything positive.

Now for the positives, please.

Driving a taxi is great because you can work when, where and as much as you want, at least if you don’t have to spend 40 hours or more a week behind the wheel to pay your rent. The work is as self-determined as is imaginable for employees. Every day is a new challenge and if you approach your shift with an open heart and a good knowledge of the city and people, you learn a lot about the lives of people from all over the world. You learn something new about the city every day because you go everywhere and meet all the people who make up Berlin. When you still had free travel and there were only a few traffic jams, speed cameras and suicidal cyclists, driving a car on Berlin’s roads was also a lot of fun.

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