Drivers can spend the first five to six hours of their shift — longer sometimes — earning enough money to pay for the daily rental fees due the owners. Regular $10 bribes or $25 in bogus overcharges can mean the difference between a working wage and chronic behind-the-wheel anxiety.
“Panhandling on wheels,’’ is how one longtime driver described the business.
“Urban sharecropping,’’ said another.
Nas Farah, a 34-year-old father of two, knows the feeling.
A licensed Boston cabdriver since 1999, Farah found his way to the United States from a refugee camp in Kenya in 1995 after having escaped civil war in Somalia. He had dreams of medical school. But more practical concerns intervened. He needed a job and found the independence of driving a taxi an alluring option.
Like many other drivers, Farah found his way to Tutunjian’s garage on Kilmarnock Street in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. With hundreds of cabs wheeling in and out every 12 hours, drivers, particularly new drivers, often chart a course there.
Farah, like other drivers interviewed for this story, said he is often charged for gas, even when he returns his cab with a full tank. He carefully counts the money owed to Tutunjian, slipping the cash into a drop safe, yet is sometimes told days later that he is short. When he first started, he had to slip dispatchers cash for keys, a practice that he said diminished as he became more established at the garage.
“If I was a millionaire, I swear I would treat [drivers] well,’’ Farah said during an interview in a South Boston doughnut shop one night after his shift. “I wouldn’t allow anybody to [solicit] a bribe. I wouldn’t ask them for extra money. They’re poor! This job is tough itself.’’
Many drivers have described Tutunjian as an avuncular presence with disarming charm.
“It’s not about being a nice guy, believe me,’’ Farah said. “Eddie’s a very smart guy and he’s a very calm guy, but that doesn’t mean he’s a nice guy. He’s not. Because he is the one who is controlling the thing.’’
Besides a brief exchange in his office during a reporter’s visit, Tutunjian has declined to be interviewed for this article, instead issuing written statements to the Globe in which he said the newspaper’s assertions about his business are “false and troubling.’’
“No taxi driver has ever complained to me that they have paid or been encouraged to pay small bribes to dispatchers behind the window to get keys to cabs,’’ Tutunjian wrote. “I have never been informed by the City of Boston hackney division that any driver has complained to hackney about this.’’
Blythe-Shaw, whose Boston Taxi Drivers Association claims 1,200 members, lays the blame for exploitation of drivers squarely at the feet of Cohen — and Menino, whom she has implored to clean up an industry that she said rewards millionaire owners at the expense of drivers.
“It’s within every corner of the industry,’’ Blythe-Shaw said. “I haven’t spoken to one driver in my years of experience with the drivers who had not been victim to that kind of corruption or abuse. Not one.’’
The Police Department’s taxi regulations offer protection to drivers like Farah who report violations. Any owner who retaliates risks losing his livelihood.
On that point, the police commissioner was unequivocal. If drivers are fired for openly complaining about being defrauded, Davis said, his department will do something it hasn’t done in recent memory: revoke medallions.
“I want these guys to know I’m not fooling around,’’ he said.
The Tutunjian empire