Politics & Policy

Cabbies Smell Discrimination in Odor Rules

Union says sending drivers home for "foul interior odors" targets foreign-born drivers

San Diego taxi drivers think regulations regarding body odor really stink, and the hacks are calling the rules racially discriminatory.

Cabbies recently realized that the San Diego Regional Airport Authority can turn them back from picking up customers for “foul interior odors,” according to the Associated Press. If they fail, drivers will not be allowed into the passenger area and will have to change their clothes.

A spokeswoman for the airport authority explained that the measure does not exclusively apply to the individual drivers but to their cars. She said the rules are designed to ensure that the vehicles are kept in adequate and fair-smelling condition. For passengers picked up at the airport, the cab is often a visitor’s first impression of the Southern California city.

But leaders of United Taxi Workers of San Diego turned up their noses at the standards, saying they target foreign-born drivers, who make up most of the drivers in the fleet. A San Diego State University study from last year found that 94 percent of area taxi drivers were immigrants, with nearly two-thirds from East Africa. The enforcement propagates the stereotype that foreigners smell bad, leaders say.

“What a dehumanizing way to treat your workers,” said the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who weighed in on the matter.

While the rules have been in place for years, the union only sniffed them out recently, while reviewing the airport board’s guidelines, which include a checklist of 52 other requirements.

The airport authority said it is enforcing the same standards put in place by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, which regulates other forms of public transportation. A spokeswoman for the airport authority added that it does not have a standard process for judging a driver’s waft and only turns away about three drivers on those ground this year.

Earlier this year, Sacramento passed a similar requirement regarding personal hygiene as part of wide-ranging set of ordinances to address its struggling taxicab industry, including requiring drivers to show proof of basic English. This policy was also criticized as discriminatory by labor bosses, with Sacramento Taxicab Union president Kazman Zaidi telling the local CBS affiliate, “Maybe they can’t read English, but they can understand, and they can answer the question and where the customer need to go.”

San Diego’s requirement for cabs’ condition is more specific than most such standards, which merely mandate that cars be clean. The AP notes that Seattle had a similarly explicit guideline based on odor, but discontinued it last month after complaints from the industry.

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

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