Minibus service standards should be set and regulated by the authorities

The fact that some commentators are advocating that any increase in minibus fares be linked to an across-the -board improvement in the quality of service afforded commuters resembles a desperate bid to claw back some measure of leverage from an industry ‘gone wild’ though the more one thinks of throwing in ‘good behaviour’ as part of the criteria for increased fares the more it seems to be not a particularly good idea. The fact of the matter is that tagging enhanced service provision to increased fares amounts to rewarding the service-providers for offering a commodity that ought to be provided as a matter of automaticity. That – in the particular case of dealing with an industry that has long been well and truly out of control – is a decidedly risky negotiating strategy that could well blow up in the face of the authorities.

Last week, in the midst of the disclosure of a $20 increase in minibus fares we learnt that the authorities are to engage the United Minibus Union (UMU) on the protocols associated with standards of service-provision in the sector – including mode of dress of operators, seating arrangements for commuters, fare display, soliciting passengers and the various other courtesies which we really ought to be able to take for granted but which have been altogether absent over the years. If the reports about likely discussions between the authorities and the UMU are to be believed it raises the concern that the authorities may well be heading in the direction of ‘cutting a deal’ with the service-providers (owners, drivers, conductors and touts) that could pose serious enforcement difficulties.

Doubtless there are those who would advocate that the business of service-delivery in the public transport sector (a Code of Conduct, if you will) be a matter of discourse between the authorities and the sector, perhaps through the union though, given the benefit of our experience with the standards which the unregulated minibus service has set itself over the years (the UMU is a creature of relatively recent vintage) even greater numbers of people might ask whether the sector, through its union or otherwise, ought to be afforded the latitude of consultation.  The sad fact of the matter is that chastened over time by the woeful failure of the sector to properly regulate itself, the benefit of hindsight dictates that at least for now a Code of Conduct embracing the rules of service-delivery be drawn up by the powers that be, alone, leaving service-providers with what, hopefully, will be the straightforward task of compliance. There is no nexus between arriving at a modus vivendi on fare levels, on the one hand and setting service standards-related rules for the sector on the other.  The first is a matter of negotiation; the second is a matter of laying down the law.

Negotiated agreements are only as effective as their enforceability and in the matter of the minibus service this is where the problem begins. Whether or not the UMU, having signed on to a Code of Conduct on the sector’s behalf has the ability to effectively enforce it is a matter of considerable conjecture given the quagmire of lawlessness in which the service has been so deeply immersed over the years and since an agreement between the authorities and the NMU imposes upon both sides a measure of responsibility for enforcement it is best that the union be excused that duty altogether. It should be, solely, a matter for law-enforcement.

Taken collectively, the various forms of deviant behaviour associated with what is loosely described as the ‘minibus culture,’ compounded as they have become by the insertion of corrupt policemen into the process, has grown into a socially destabilizing monster in its own right, its manifestations ranging from callous disregard for the safety of commuters to acts of the most unbearable loutishness by some service-providers, not least, the manhandling of commuters, discomfiting accommodation arrangements, bus park rivalries that result in violent confrontations instances  alleged involvement by minibus crews in the sexual molestation of school girls and links with other criminal acts. Turning all this around requires a robust rules-enforcement regimen.

Mind you, the absence of any real protest by commuters (they appear to consider themselves powerless in the circumstances) coupled with ineffective law-enforcement have served to entrench the ‘power’ of the service – providers whose regime of lawlessness (as has already been mentioned) is buttressed by either the complicity or the indifference of some traffic cops. It would be foolhardy, no less, to require such a dysfunctional service to play a role (at least at this juncture) in regulating itself. 

For all these reasons – and while there should be no problem with the UMU being involved in discourses with the authorities pertaining to some aspects of the welfare of the sector, fares and fuel prices being some of those, a Code of Conduct embracing traffic rules and regulations, standards of customer service and the dress, deportment and general demeanour of drivers, conductors and those others associated with delivering the service ought not to fall within their jurisdiction. The simple fact is that while there are clear business considerations that ought to dictate the fixing of fares – the principle here being both the reasonableness of the fare in the context of the need for the service-providers and bus owners to make a reasonable living – the laying down of the law and the effective enforcement of the rules under which the service is provided including road use and the various facets of customer service ought to be the prerogative of the authorities, solely. The only input that should be required of the service-providers is their complete compliance with the law.

  Mind you, one hastens to make the point that the effective enforcement of a Code of Conduct for the minibus service is doomed to failure if nothing is done to put an end to the role of corrupt policemen in buttressing the present status quo.    

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial had erroneously listed the agreed increase as 20% instead of $20.

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