Published 08 February 2013 11:57, Updated 11 February 2013 07:32
App battle ... Taxi drivers around the country are being pressured to steer clear of fares coming from booking apps for smartphones Photo: Angela Wylie
The ACCC is investigating complaints that taxi networks in Queensland are strong-arming taxi drivers not to use new smartphone apps that bring in new jobs and, some believe, make booking a taxi simpler and cheaper.
In one case last month, Townsville Taxis general manager Michael Jacoby allegedly made a booking using smart phone app GoCatch in order to catch drivers using it.
A driver, Queensland United Hire Drivers Association president Alister Smith, was then summoned to Jacoby’s office, where he was told his use of the app was against the taxi network’s rules and could result in financial penalties. BRW has obtained a follow-up letter sent from Jacoby to Smith.
The letter is part of a pattern of behaviour that is taking place around the country, where taxi networks are attempting to portray booking apps that compete with their business, such as GoCatch and Ingogo, as unsafe and potentially illegal – a claim supporters of the app dispute.
Newsletters have been sent to drivers across entire networks, warning taxi drivers and operators against using the apps. They threaten financial penalties and even disaffiliation from the network, which in some regional towns means taxi drivers and operators are forced to find a different trade.
The letter from Jacoby, dated January 4, makes it clear to Smith the taxi network does not allow its drivers to use smartphone apps to accept bookings and threatens to impose financial penalties if they do so.
“I stated to you that I consider that this type of service is a direct competitor of Standard White Cabs Ltd, the Department of Transport and Main Roads’ approved taxi booking company for the Townsville area,” the letter states.
The letter states that by using the service Smith is in breach of company policy which states that “all bookings are company bookings”.
“I do not accept your contention that the acceptance of a fare via such an on-line taxi booking service is the same as a street hail ... it is my view that acceptance of a fare via such an online taxi booking services (sic) provides the driver with an unfair advantage over other Townsville Taxis affiliated drivers that accept bookings despatched from the company’s call centre in the normal course.”
“I have noted your verbal confirmation that you will no longer accept fares via this method, and I have accepted this at face value.
A newsletter widely circulated by the Bundaberg Cab Company, part of the Australia Wide Taxi network, in March last year makes similar demands of its drivers.
“Drivers are reminded of company rules prohibiting the use of mobile phones to take personal bookings as Bundaberg Cab Company holds the only service contract to operate a taxi booking service in Bundaberg,” the newsletter from managing director Jayson Russell says.
If “drivers insist on flouting the rules” and use the app, the letter says, they are required to phone the network before they pick up the customer and make the booking through the network themselves.
Another circular sent from John Lobwein at Suncoast Cabs reminds drivers that to accept taxi bookings they must be a “Service Contract holder” and without this authority they are breaking the law and could face disaffiliation from the service.
The Queensland United Hire Drivers Association disputes the claims the apps break any rules, arguing drivers have been allowed to take private phone and radio bookings for years.
Jacoby declined to comment.
Benjamin Walsh, chief executive of Taxi Council Queensland, says GoCatch is operating a booking company without having to meet any of the service obligations mandated on the major networks.
“By not wishing to brand the cabs and meet the other obligations, GoCatch are demonstrating they do not have customer interests at heart, but are simply motivated by profit and wish others to take responsibility,” Walsh says. “This will only hurt the reputation of the industry and the levels of customer service provided over time.”