Book review: Migrant Journeys - New Zealand taxi drivers tell their stories

Adrienne Jansen and Liz Grant. Bridget Williams Books Ltd, Wellington. 2015

The two authors interviewed 14 migrant taxi drivers in Christchurch and Wellington to find out more about their lives. In fact, the authors interviewed many more but some families did not want their story published, in part because taxi driving is not seen as a suitable career in some countries.

The 2013 census lists 67 different ethnicities among New Zealand taxi drivers, not including NZ European and Maori. The taxi drivers in this book come from a range of countries: from Africa, the former Yugoslavia, the Pacific, the Middle East, South-East Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Most are men but two women share the taxi business with their husband. Eight of the interviewees came to New Zealand from choice while six were refugees.

Each taxi driver talks about the situation in their own country when they were growing up and later when they made the decision to leave. When they first came to New Zealand, it was hard for most of them, financially as well as emotionally. Some, very reluctantly, had to apply for a benefit until they were settled. Some had a contact here – a distant relation perhaps – but others had nobody. Nevertheless, most found friendly people who helped. Some worked incredibly hard, at two or three jobs at first.

Many had professional careers in their own country – they were accountants, business managers – but were unable to find similar work here. They made the point that New Zealand is not using the talents of migrants whereas Australia is much more prepared to give migrants a chance of work. Interestingly, many of the taxi companies are now owned and managed by migrants.

Those interviewed talked about the benefits of taxi driving: they can choose their hours of work and can make a reasonable living which includes enough money to send back to family in their home country. Most also brought other family members to New Zealand. They also talked about the difficulties: the shameful abuse they have encountered especially with drunkards, and the problem of passengers who do a runner without paying. The men with taxi-driving wives did the night-time shift while the women drove during the day when there were fewer drunk people.

Nearly all those interviewed said that they came for their children, and many were proud to tell of their successful sons and daughters who were now established in a good career in New Zealand.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the book was the background about each country which led to a desire to leave. The experiences of the Cambodian man were horrific. He witnessed killings and he escaped being killed himself on more than one occasion. By accepting refugees, we are making a big difference to many. The authors make a plea for New Zealand to increase our quota of refugees.

We could do more to help other migrants to settle here too by being prepared to recognise qualifications and by offering free English classes.

- by Pat Syme

She is a ESL teacher, who also has a podcast website to help newcomers with their listening to English and to understand more about New Zealand.