Norman Nicholson is not what one might call a run-of-the-mill minibus operator. He is sixty five, retired from the public service and owns a seven-year-old 15-seater minibus which, though well past its prime is still entirely roadworthy. He bought it five years ago with the gratuity he received on his retirement. Norman is a creature of habit. He starts his day at 5 am with two contracts to ferry early morning workers from the lower East Coast to the city. After that he joins the ‘bump and grind’ of the rush period. At noon he rests for one hour then resumes until 6 pm. He never works beyond that time. Norman’s sole employee is an adopted nephew who works as the conductor. “I don’t fight the road,” he says. “I really don’t need to.
By contrast, Raymond (surname withheld at the interviewee’s request) thinks he has no choice but to fight the road. He is a hired driver. The owner of the bus which he drives is in his seventh month of honouring monthly installments of seventy thousand dollars to the dealer from whom he acquired a reconditioned bus imported from Japan for $3.5 million. Most dealers don’t take kindly to missed installments. The owner wants at least seven thousand dollars and a full tank of gas at the end of each day and that is non-negotiable.
The alternative to doing business with a dealer is to secure a loan from a commercial bank. One of the conditions of bank borrowing is that the borrower find forty per cent of the cost of the bus before the loan can be considered. Full insurance coverage, a condition demanded by either the dealer or the bank costs around two hundred and twenty five thousand dollars.
Having covered the owner’s takings Raymond must then work for at least a further ten thousand dollars for himself and his conductor. “We can’t make that money if we don’t fight the road,” he says.
Fighting the road is a way of life for minibus operators. Most of the drivers and conductors are relatively young men, many with families to support. Many of them have been in and out of other forms of employment and they have come to favour a job that brings them money every day. “Some of us live from day to day. We are under pressure to take something home at the end of every day,” Raymond says.
Then there are the imponderables…like being stopped by the police for one offence or the other. “You let off a raise rather than go to court,” is how Raymond describes the manner in which such situations are handled.
In effect, the minibus becomes a relatively small cake that must be split several ways and if the split is to keep all the stakeholders reasonably happy the hustle is inevitable.
It is the pressures of the economic bind in which operators in the country’s privately-owned public transport sector find themselves that have resulted in the sector’s badly tarnished image. Customer service has in many instances been reduced to the manhandling of patrons by touts whose job it is to fill buses; speeding and other forms of recklessness are occupational hazards, and ever so often the outcomes are horrific accidents, multiple deaths and injuries. It is an unending pursuit of ‘fighting the road,” both driver and conductor focused on securing as many fares as possible during a working day that comes and goes quickly.
The main minibus park that houses the routes 41, 45 and 46 minibuses is situated immediately east of the Stabroek Market. A few years ago the area was cleared of vendors. There is a Mobile Police Outpost contiguous with the Park and there are days on which the area is heavily populated by traffic ranks.
For all that, the Park is often the scene of spectacular confusion arising out of the competition for passengers among buses plying the same route. Established to ease what used to be the chaos outside the Stabroek Market, the mini bus Park has become the scene of a new kind of lawlessness. Rather than take their places inside the park and conform to a first-in, first-out system, delinquent operators simply cruise around in the general vicinity of the Park in an area known as the Hot Plate, picking up passengers while compliant operators wait their turns inside the Park. On the afternoon when this newspaper observed the practice it was occurring in the full view of several traffic ranks.
On Sundays the Park is reportedly controlled by hustlers whose job it is to enforce the turn-taking system; except that on those days when the Hot Plate is discouraged, usually compliant drivers are physically prevented from entering the Park.
Sometimes, like last Sunday, the situation escalates into confrontation. Last Sunday a female bus owner who customarily conforms to the turn-taking procedures on weekdays was denied access to the Park and had one of her tyres slashed in the bargain. She reported the matter to the Brickdam Police Station though several hours after the report had been made the police were yet to keep their promise to honour their commitment to send a rank to investigate.
Norman Nicholson thoroughly enjoys the absence of the pressures that animate what he describes as “a cut throat business.” It is driven, he says, by ruthless dealers who drive hard bargains and desperate owners and operators whose reckless and often illegal operating procedures are driven by their circumstances. “Some of the contracts allow the dealers to repossess the buses and sell them to the next buyer as soon as you miss two installments,” he says. Nicholson is advocating regulations that make the payment terms easier and which, in effect, takes the pressures off owners and non-owning operators alike.
Recent attempts to unionize minibus operators have met with only limited success. Long accustomed to fending for themselves most operators have shown little interest in any attempt to be part of an organized setting. Ian Andrews, the man behind the attempt to create a union says, however, the interest is growing. He explains that the clashes with the police coupled with the need to dialogue with government over fares is causing more operators to recognize the need for leadership. The union, however, remains unrecognized and Andrews’ attempts to dialogue with the police over the issue of bringing some measure of order to the sector have met with only limited success.
One of the union’s goals is to take control of the mini bus Parks, to install its own monitors charged with enforcing the regulations. Andrews admits that it’s a slow process.
Raymond supports Norman Nicholson’s assessment of what drives the sector. He believes that a sense of order can be brought to operating practices only if the pressures to ‘run the road’ in an effort to increase the returns to the stakeholders are eased. On the other hand he has no idea as to what it would take to ease those pressures.