At the taxi stand outside the Vienna State Opera, cabdriver Karoly Kokai is waiting for his next fare. The radio dispatcher suddenly asks for a “native” to go to a nearby address. Kokai, a Hungarian, stays put, letting an Austrian-born driver heed the call.
One of Vienna’s largest taxi-dispatching services is doing a brisk business sending “natives” to transport passengers averse to foreigners at the wheel. The firm says it is merely responding to a consumer demand no different than a special request for a Mercedes or a non-smoking sedan.
Although the demand for native drivers makes up only a fraction of overall taxi requests in the Austrian capital, cabdrivers say such calls have risen sharply in recent months. Phoning for a native has become standard practice among Viennese worried about an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and developing countries.
“This mirrors the general mood here,” said Kokai, 33, who has lived in Vienna for 11 years. “Foreigners are unwelcome.”
According to Kokai, prospective passengers often scan the windshields at a taxi stand, searching for a driver who appears to be Austrian. When some seated customers discover he is not a native after all, Iranian-born Hamoyaun Sina said, they leave his cab, slamming the door as they go.
The preference for natives, many local drivers say, stems from aggravation over the inability of some cabbies of foreign origin to understand German and quickly find desired destinations. But other drivers say the surge in calls for natives is suspect, citing the rules that command of the language and a thorough knowledge of city streets are prerequisites for obtaining a taxi driver’s license.
Viennese drivers, interviewed at taxi stands around the city, readily accused their foreign colleagues of “poor grooming,” “bazaar manners” and driving “dirty cars.” They also said the foreigners lack Schmaeh, a homegrown form of chat with charming but often double-edged entertainment value.
“How can they have Schmaeh?” asked driver Hubert Steininger in mock indignation, the Danubian lilt essential to the local dialect evident in his voice. “The Viennese like to converse, they like to talk politics, they like jokes. When you pick them up at a tavern, you say, `So, how was the wine? Were there any good-looking babes?’ You can’t just sit there at the wheel – you’ve got to tell stories.”
City spokesman Christian Roettinger termed dispatchers’ readiness to transmit requests for native-driven taxis an “exploitation of latent xenophobia.” Yet while Austrian law prohibits discrimination on the basis of national or ethnic origin in public services, officials said they know of no instance where the practice has been legally challenged.
“I am simply meeting a demand,” said Gerhard Pfister, manager of the Funktaxi 31300 GmbH taxi company, which is linked by radio to nearly a quarter of Vienna’s 4,340 cabs. Several foreign-born cabbies have ended dispatching arrangements with the firm, but Pfister rejected such criticism, saying the private company is acting according to free-market principles.
“I respect customers’ wishes, no matter what,” he said. “I don’t see why this should be a matter for discussion.”
Pfister’s primary competitor, VOT Funktaxi, refuses to transmit orders for native drivers. “We see this as a sort of discrimination,” said VOT manager Leo Muellner. “All the drivers have been tested and are licensed, so we do not make any distinctions. For us, they are all equal.”
Some Austrian passengers, angry at what they too view as discrimination, have begun asking dispatchers for a foreign-born driver when ordering a cab.
The Vienna Taxi Drivers Guild estimates that 10 percent of the city’s 7,000 licensed cabdrivers are foreigners residing legally in Austria. Strict disciplinary procedures have stemmed large numbers of unauthorized cabbies, according to the guild, and testing for German and street knowledge has been toughened.
“Guest workers” compose around 9 percent of the total Austrian work force. Asked about concern from local drivers who say the foreigners threaten their livelihood, a guild official said the market needed the additional drivers from abroad.
Viennese cabby Sylvia Schrack said she responds to radioed requests for a native between six to eight times a day; other drivers said the calls represent up to 20 percent of their daily fares.
“I don’t see it as xenophobia. These are just customer preferences,” said Schrack. “When you go to an Italian restaurant and order pizza, that is what you want. You don’t want green noodles.”
Cabdriver Roland Hausleithner called it all “a question of Austrian mentality. There is greater trust for natives. They are reliable and generally better groomed. Their cars are clean, and they help customers get in and out.”
Seated in a white Mercedes idling behind Hausleitner’s cab, driver Franz Rathbauer said matter-of-factly, “I would not allow my wife or child to travel with a foreign driver. I’d be afraid of what could happen.”
Many foreign-born drivers say they are disturbed by dispatcher requests for natives.
“It is simply a racist matter and not in Austria’s interest, especially because Vienna is a tourist city attracting many foreigners,” said Homoyaun Sina, an Indian who after 25 years here speaks flawless German. But Gurdev Sandhu, a more recent Indian immigrant, seemed relieved that the “native” option helps spare his anger.
“If the customer feels that way, I’d rather he ask for a native,” he said. “Better that than have him as a passenger and have to deal with his criticism and hostility.”