[Viewpoint]Driven downA few days ago, I was walking home in the evening when I saw a taxi driver eating his dinner in the dark. I felt pity for the man, so I went into a convenience store nearby and bought a can of coffee. I turned back and headed to the taxi. The driver had finished his dinner and stepped out of the car for some fresh air. Without a word, I approached and handed him the coffee.
With an awkward smile, he thanked me and accepted the drink. I did not have to ask him why he was eating dinner in the car. “I always bring food with me not to save 5,000 won [$4.39] for dinner but because I cannot eat in restaurants due to arthritis in my hands,” he said. As if he’d been waiting for someone to listen to his story, he began telling me how hard a taxi driver’s life is today.
He comes out around 12:30 in the afternoon and works until 4 in the morning. He works two days in a row and takes a day off. He makes about 200,000 won a day and can work about 20 days a month, so you might think he makes 4 million won a month. However, he has to spend over 60,000 won a day on gasoline. Taking the 20 percent government gas subsidy into account, fuel costs him about 50,000 won per day. That means 1 million every month for gas. He also has to pay co-op fees and occasional repairs on his car. After subtracting all the expenses, he brings home 2 million to 2.5 million won a month, barely enough for a family of five.
The driver was a deputy desk chief at an apparel exporter until the financial crisis 10 years ago. He worked for a cab company for six years and became a cab owner four years ago. Driving a taxi for 10 years takes a heavy toll on your health, he said. You won’t find a taxi driver who has a healthy stomach. Constipation is also common, and so are prostate problems. In his case, he had arthritis before he started driving for a living, but since then, he has added blood pressure, stomach and prostate problems to his list. He takes pills for blood pressure, blood clots, his heart and his stomach.
Commercial vehicles are only allowed to run for eight years, with a one-year extension. He is driving his car with the extension now. He has no choice but to buy a new car next year, but he cannot afford to do so.
However, if he quits driving a cab, then becoming an apartment security guard is the 53-year-old’s only work option left. He feels he is too old to start a new career.
His wife works as an insurance planner, and he tries to accommodate her career as much as possible. If his wife weren’t making money, the family would be much worse off. So when he has a day off after two straight days of driving, he does the dishes and cleans house. Of course, he makes his own meals.
It’s thanks to his wife that his oldest daughter is able to study in college. The younger daughter is a high school junior, and the son is in the eighth grade. To be able to afford their college education, both he and his wife have to endure difficulties. He cannot stop driving despite his health problems.
The country and the entire world are troubled by the financial shockwave from New York, but the taxi driver was feeling bitter and desperate. At one time, people thought cab drivers who owned their cars were making a decent living. However, that was a long time ago. He once headed a middle-class family, but his status has been falling gradually over the last decade. And he doesn’t have the energy to start over. The driving force that keeps him going is the hope that his children will prosper.
Of course, there are many people who are struggling more than the taxi driver. To them, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the crash of the stock market and the exchange rate fluctuation are stories from far away lands. They might feel that those with money deserve to suffer when the market crashes. Who will calm their fury? Can the market, the country or the president appease them? There is no answer. However, one thing is clear - when the haves are crying in agony, the have-nots have already fallen dead silent.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong