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Lebanese Immigrants in Australia: Growing Up in a Culture of Taxi Driving
By Christine Eid
By its very nature a taxi journey is seen as a passage between two places rather, than the subject of focus itself. Taxi driving is a humble profession, usually overlooked, undervalued and often the brunt of jokes and stereotypes. Most consider it a transitory occupation – a short-term solution between jobs, a source of additional income or just a good fall-back position.
With the introduction of industry reforms in the mid 1990s to Australia’s state of Victoria, taxis became more outwardly professionalized, regulated by the state government through the Victorian Taxi Directorate. Mandating yellow as Victoria’s official taxi color; strict rules and regulations on driver uniforms, code of conduct and vehicle standards aimed to lift the public image of the industry. Reforms continued in the early 2000s with upgraded training programs and the installation of security cameras in an effort to improve taxi safety and reduce driver assaults. But with all of the reforms, the escalating taxi license values and the growing shift from an owner-operator to an investor-driven industry, there has been little improvement in driver working conditions and benefits. For example, there is no annual leave, no sick pay, no pension plan, and driver safety and well-being remain a grave concern.
As the daughter of a taxi driver, I know this all too well. My father drove taxis for over 30 years, initially as an owner-operator and then as a driver, predominantly working the night shift. Growing up, I can recall anxiously waiting for my father to return home. I got into the habit of waking regularly to check my alarm clock. If he was any later than 3:30 a.m, panic would set in. I would get out of bed, pace the room and constantly look out onto the driveway and at the city lights, wondering where he was, imagining the worst. I always felt so guilty that he was out there working, risking his life to support us, while we slept.
After the death of Melbourne taxi driver Rajneesh Joga in 2006 and the subsequent protests and lobbying by taxi drivers, the state government has initiated a taxi industry safety taskforce. The taskforce intends to address driver concerns by testing safety screens in taxis and providing legal advice to assist the establishment of a driver representative industry body. It will also seek advice from the Victorian Multicultural Commission about combating racism.
Melbourne’s taxi entrepreneurs who came to Australia from Hadchit, Lebanon, who included my father, were the influence behind my solo, contemporary art exhibition entitled ‘Transit,’ held in 2006 at Span Galleries in Melbourne, Australia. Exploring my own history I recorded the rich oral stories of this group, who migrated to Australia as part of the second wave of Lebanese migration (1947-1975).
Melbourne’s taxi entrepreneurs from Hadchit, Lebanon, shared a special bond. Because they grew up in a small village, not only did they know one another but in some cases they were related or close family friends, strengthening camaraderie between the men. Usually they met at Moonee Ponds taxi rank, told jokes and shared stories as they waited for a fare. In the early 1970s my uncle, Raymond Eid, recalls that he and his brothers Joe and Tony (my father) would pass by each other’s homes to check that each had made it back safely before the end of their shift. They worried about each other tremendously because around that time an Australian Lebanese taxi driver was killed on a fare to Ballarat (approximately 100km from Melbourne).
Like so many of Australia’s migrants, the Hadchit Lebanese community in Victoria was established through chain migration. The community spans back to 1926, when one night over a card game, Raymond Betros, Simon Younis, George Bicery and his son Michael decided they would go to Australia for a couple of years, earn some money and return to Hadchit. Hadchit’s residents were accustomed to this form of temporary migration. Many travelled abroad to Latin America, the United States and Canada to hawk for a few years, only to return to Hadchit with enough capital to improve their standard of living.
The group disembarked in Sydney. After a chance meeting with a friend who took them under his wing and within a couple of months, these Hadchit pioneers had equipped themselves with hawker licenses and set off in business. Hawking, or peddling, was a common occupation among the first wave of Lebanese immigrants to Australia (1880s-1920s) who were commonly referred to as ’Syrian hawkers.’ Betros followed Younis to Melbourne where they hawked door to door in the suburbs before establishing a run in Victoria’s western district. Gradually their families joined them in Australia; the Second World War temporarily interrupted some of the reunions.
John Werden and Nadim Hanna, who arrived in Melbourne as part of the second wave of Lebanese immigration to Australia (1947-1975), were the first of the taxi entrepreneurs. Younis, a close family friend, sponsored Werden in 1950, while in 1951 Hanna found a sponsor in his uncle Betros. This immigration marked a pivotal point in the history of Victoria’s Hadchit community, as they contributed to the subsequent Hadchit settlement in Melbourne.
Employment opportunities for these men relied on kinship and community networks. The majority began work almost immediately in Melbourne’s manufacturing industry: textile mills, car manufacturing plants, tyre manufacturers, steel foundries and meat pie factories. John Werden followed his own career path, beginning in the hardware department at Myer’s Department Store and teaching South American dance at night. Earning eight pounds a week was tough in those days, and when he heard that others were earning 12 to 14 pounds with overtime, he went to General Motors Holden (GMH) to see what he needed to do. After witnessing the noise, the crackle, the dust and the oil, he soon realized that he wasn’t cut out for that type of work.
Werden’s dissatisfaction kept him motivated to explore new ways to earn more money. After a short stint in Sydney working at the Johnson & Johnson factory, he established a hawking business. It was only when he noticed a taxi parked in his neighbour’s driveway that he came upon the inspiration for his new venture. In 1952, he got his taxi driver’s certificate and started driving with Green Tops. By 1954 he returned to Melbourne and applied for his Victorian credentials. He became well-known as the first taxi driver from Hadchit.
While he was living in Strathmore with his cousin Alamiyi and her husband Nadim Hanna, who had three children to support, they saw the potential in taxi driving. Nadim got his license in 1959, bought a car and was in business, leaving behind a leading hand position at GMH. Gradually he sponsored his brothers Joseph (1956) and Elias (1963) to Australia, helped them find factory work and later to establish their own taxi business. Taxi fever had struck. Once a model had been established, a succession of taxi businesses followed, inspiring their brothers-in-law, cousins and family friends.
Why was the taxi business so popular with this community? Most had limited education and since they had no trade or profession, they felt their career paths were restricted. They identified distinct advantages with the taxi business, such as greater earnings, autonomy, social mobility and a low bar for entry. The sum of these advantages seemed to outweigh the high personal risk, financial risk and the long hours. Elias Hanna recalls that while he was working at Bradmill Cotton Mills in 1965, he drove the taxi on weekends, where, he said, “I was making something like 12 pounds.” Since this was as much as his weekly factory wage, he started driving full-time. They shared their experiences with community networks, spreading the word about the money that could be made driving taxis. My uncle, Raymond Eid, recalls that in the early 1970s, “Nadim Hanna said that if you got your taxi license you could make $400 a week, while in the factory we’d make $50 a week.” With a desire to provide for his growing family, he took Nadim’s advice with no regrets.
Establishing a taxi business signified independence over one’s own livelihood. Being ’your own boss’ provided flexibility and allowed them to determine their own working patterns. Not only could they choose the numbers of hours they worked, but also the specific hours. It allowed them to maintain family and religious commitments, as most did not work Sundays, a day for spending time with family and attending mass. Their mobility also added a social dimension to their profession. They would return home for meals or pop over to a friend’s or relative’s home for coffee, rituals which reinforced their sense of freedom.
They believed that self-employment was the gateway to a higher standard of living. They found that the transition from factory worker to taxi entrepreneur was self-gratifying and granted them high esteem among their peers. Also, the initial capital outlay for entry into the taxi industry was relatively low. Some saved the entire principal, while others borrowed from family or banks, and with hard work repaid their loans in a relatively short period of time.
For these men entering the industry between the early 1950s and 1970s, the taxi business broadened their opportunities. Some went on to own several taxis, others invested in property or other businesses, and others became employees. While the financial outcomes varied, they were all successful in providing greater opportunities for future generations.
This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)