To take one example, a trip from Beylikdüzü to Yenibosna in an illegal taxi would cost around TL 22 for a distance of about 20 kilometers, while the same trip in a registered taxi would cost the customer around TL 60.
İstanbul Chamber of Taxis President Yahya Uğur explains the discrepancy this way: “İstanbul taxis have to purchase the most expensive gas in the world, and at the same time, we work with the world’s cheapest taxi meters. A taxi is actually a privileged mode of transportation; it is not a mode of mass transport. Our prices are quite low, given all that.” In choosing an illegal taxi it is quite clear that the average customer is taking his or her wallet into consideration, even taking into account the associated risks.
According to Halit Yılmaz, president of the Bahçelievler Chamber of Taxis, “We [legal taxi drivers] are the ones who caused the emergence of these illegal taxis.” Yılmaz continues: “The owners of the vehicles rent out their taxis. The real owner of the vehicle would not act like that [driving dangerously]. The accidents the driver is involved in wind up costing the owner. This is where the contradiction lies. If I am not fined for my actions, I never straighten out those actions. There are drivers who are real İstanbul gentlemen. Some of them even pay for their own mistakes.”
Illegal drivers: We are ready to pay taxes, just let the state make us legal
We decided to meet with Hakan Ayaşlıoğlu, the owner of one of İstanbul’s biggest illegal taxi stops, to learn more about the truth of this complicated matter. We met in a coffeehouse in Beylikdüzü. According to Ayaşlıoğlu, he has nearly 21,000 registered customers, and 65 vehicles and drivers. He believes there are 90,000 illegal taxis across Turkey, and around 60,000 in İstanbul alone. He says the reason for the mushrooming of illegal taxi enterprises and drivers is an absence of state interference in the matter. He also notes that the behavior of taxi drivers towards their customers has contributed to the new sector springing up in a legal vacuum.
Ayaşlıoğlu is firmly opposed to the use of the word “korsan,” meaning “pirate,” to describe the industry, the illegal taxis and their drivers, commenting: “It makes it sound as though the drivers are stealing work away from others. What we are doing cannot be defined this way. I work as a company. I print out bills for every person I transport, if they wish. I pay around TL 1,500 in KDV [value-added tax] per month for the seven insured workers I employ.” This is in fact how most illegal taxi stands operate.
Ayaşlıoğlu does acknowledge that his enterprise is a part of the unregistered economy, but blames this on the “mistaken” policies of the government, stating: “The price of taxis is around TL 47,500, but the market value is in fact currently TL 900,000. The number of people who own 18,000 licenses cannot be more than 1,000 to 1,500. It all lies in the hands of a clearly elite group. But the state gains nothing from this ownership. The only gain made by the state from all this is the taxes it gets from the TL 47,500. You cannot acquire a license because this business lies in the hands of the mafia.”
Therefore the illegal taxi sector, which alleges that the state does not open bidding tenders on legal vehicles due to their high prices, responds to allegations that they are avoiding taxes by arguing: “Which of our colleagues working today in yellow or red taxis actually has SGK [health insurance]? If not, then they are all avoiding taxes. Do taxis always print out bills for their customers? On both the Asian and European sides of İstanbul there are about 2,500 registered taxis all using the same license. Does this not enter the category of illegality? In places like Russia and England this business is better controlled by legislation. Really the only difference between us and official registered taxis is the cost of our licenses. If you want you can compare the criminal records of illegal taxi drivers and legal drivers and see what the numbers show.”
‘The police arrived, and we went underground’
When the Beylikdüzü region went from being watched over by the gendarme to the police, illegal taxi drivers there went “underground.” They now change addresses regularly in order to avoid discovery. Despite this, Ayaşlıoğlu says: “Well, if the state really wanted to, they could find us immediately. If the goal were really to dry up the swamp, they could do it in a day. The police are aware of the situation. They all know what we are doing. But since what we are doing is not immoral, there are no orders given and nothing happens. Let’s say a police chief says, ‘Bring me three illegal vehicles today,’ that is possible. But they will not stop 50 of these vehicles from operating.”
At this point, fines issued to illegal taxis are TL 690. If the fine is paid within 15 days, it is subject to a 25 percent reduction. TL 169 also gets paid to the garnishees. But drivers are willing to pay these fines, reasoning, “We have to take care of our families.”
Cemal Temizkan has been doing this work for two years, and has sent two children to school on the money he has earned. He says: “If I had the finances to buy a TL 900,000 taxi license, I would, and we would do everything so well, because when we started this business we were ourselves customers of taxis. But we have entered into this sector in order not to have to make concessions when it comes to our personality and character.”
The state encouraged illegal taxi sector
One thing about which we are most curious is how long illegal taxis have been around. Ayaşlıoğlu and his friends all say the turning point for illegal taxis in Turkey came with the mass migrations from Bulgaria in 1989. “It all began when [then President Turgut] Özal told Bulgarians who were arriving in their cars and were unemployed that if they could find nothing else to do, they could drive taxis. In other words, it was really the state who started all this. But of course today the state denies its own role in it,” Ayaşlıoğlu says, also noting that around 300,000 to 400,000 people earn good money from illegal taxis these days, everyone from benzene sellers to auto mechanics. As he sees it, bringing an end to illegal taxis would mean the loss of work for around 60,000 people.
Ayaşlıoğlu observes that a great number of illegal taxi drivers are people who were previously involved in trade and perhaps went broke, perhaps no longer able to find work due to their age. Himself a graduate of the department of management of İstanbul University, at 46 years of age Ayaşlıoğlu feels he has no other options before him. He says: “I have friends who are retired military officers, retired police officers and even friends who are still working for the police. In order for a police officer to get by financially in İstanbul he has to do something else as well. It is a case of supply and demand really. But I want to see a referendum held, and have the people say, ‘I do not want illegal taxis, just the yellow taxis.’ If that is really what happens, I will happily admit my guilt.”
An illegal taxi bought for TL 20,000 to 25,000 can bring in around TL 2,000 to 2,500 per month in profits for its owner. The full-time workers at the illegal taxi stand make TL 140 a week, and the part-time workers around TL 100. A 16-hour work day yields around TL 100 to 150.
‘The new law will finish us off’
Ayaşlıoğlu accepts the reality that new legislation, if passed, will signal the end to illegal taxis. “If the fines were even TL 10,000, we could get a fund going and pay them. But when even the customers are going to get fined, they will never get into the vehicle,” he says. He has personally already started meeting with lawyers and financial advisors to explore possible loopholes in the new law. As he sees it, the implementation of this law will only lead to an increase in unfairness in the license market, which he says has very many inherent problems. According to Ayaşlıoğlu: “If the law is passed today, and we are eliminated, taxi licenses could go up to $1 million, and taxi prices will go up, too. The day that rumors began circulating about this new law, TL 100,000 was added to the price of a license. At this point, a license costs between TL 900,000 and 950,000.”