Taxi drivers are ''a new and disturbing category of the working poor in Australia'', with few legal rights and almost no bargaining power in the workplace, a report has found.
The report, based on the Footscray Community Legal Centre's experiences assisting 169 Victorian taxi drivers last year, found many drivers are in such dire financial circumstances they fear losing their homes.
It calls for the state government to legislate to give taxi drivers basic entitlements, such as minimum hourly rates, annual and sick leave and rights against unfair dismissal. ''Taxi drivers are the most significantly disadvantaged workers in the community,'' said Denis Nelthorpe, Footscray Community Legal Centre manager.
Launching the report yesterday, former deputy prime minister Brian Howe said it highlighted ''the terrible conditions facing too many of our taxi drivers here in Victoria''.
''Many drivers work long hours in difficult and dangerous conditions while struggling to earn a basic living wage,'' Mr Howe said.
The problem stemmed from the essentially exploitative conditions under which most drivers worked, with operators hiring them as ''bailees'' rather than employees, said Mr Howe, who is also chairman of the Australian Council of Trade Unions' independent inquiry into insecure work in Australia.
There are almost 25,000 registered bailee taxi drivers in the state.
Many are paid a portion of the farebox for working shifts strictly imposed by the taxi operator, and must also meet conditions imposed by the government, such as wearing a uniform and not refusing fares.
Yet despite having to meet these conditions, they receive virtually no entitlements.
''In practical terms, bailee drivers have many of the obligations of an employee, without any of the compensatory rights or entitlements,'' the report found.
The report also urged the government to audit taxi operators to ensure they had adequate insurance policies so drivers would no longer be preyed on by unregulated ''taxi clubs''.
Many drivers make regular insurance payments to such clubs because they cannot obtain insurance from reputable providers, only to find the club will not cover them if they have an accident.
A spokesman for the Victorian Taxi Association, an industry body, said bailment conditions should be regulated rather than done away with, to ensure no driver received less than 50 per cent of the farebox, with costs such as fuel covered by the operator.