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It's a hard day's night for Shanghai taxi drivers

Streets full of traffic jams, bad pay, rising petrol costs and 20 hours a day behind the wheel have left Nie Haiming, a Shanghai taxi driver, exasperated and bitter.

Like many other cab drivers in the Chinese metropolis of futuristic highways, viaducts and small, crowded lanes, Nie travels up to 500 kilometres (300 miles) a day for a paltry 3,000 to 4,000 yuan a month ($450 to $600).

"The work is tiring. Sometimes at night I am so exhausted that I hit the curbside," he told AFP.

Poor pay, coupled with soaring food and fuel prices triggered by high inflation in China, have already led to strikes in other cities as cab drivers take their pent-up grievances to the streets.

In Shanghai, taxi drivers have so far stayed quiet but their work conditions are as tough - if not tougher - than in other cities due to sky-high living costs in the 23-million-strong economic hub.

Like the other 100,000 or so drivers in Shanghai trying to make ends meet, Nie does not sleep during his long day and only stops for a quick bite to eat as his Volkswagen Santana works virtually around the clock.

He alternates between one work day and one day off, during which he catches up on sleep. Holidays, meanwhile, are a distant dream for most.

His work pattern stands in contrast to drivers in Beijing - where the cost of living is at least 20 percent lower than in Shanghai - who work on average 11 to 13-hour days, according to a survey by Beijing Traffic Radio.

"I've been driving a taxi for 12 years and every year it is becoming more and more difficult," said Tang Aimei, 47, one of the few women taxi drivers in Shanghai.

Tang, who also puts in a 20-hour work day for Qiangsheng, one of the biggest of Shanghai's 131 taxi companies, said she has "never had a vacation," and is unlikely to ever have one if gasoline prices continue to rise.

Every day, she must pay her taxi company 300 yuan for use of the car and 350 yuan for gas - an arrangement that leaves her with only about 300 yuan for herself.

"Two years ago, I only paid 200 yuan for gas," she said.

"The government does not pay enough attention to us, they are not stabilising gas prices."

When she gets tired, Tang goes to Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport where she can nap up to an hour while waiting for a customer.

At Pudong airport - where most of the international flights come in - the wait for customers can last five hours, but since it is far from the city, the fare is higher, she said.

The government in the metropolis has allowed taxi drivers to raise the flag-fall price from 12 to 14 yuan, but she says that increase has not helped the drivers. "It actually made us lose customers," she said.

Reflecting similar grievances, some 4,000 taxi drivers in the neighbouring city of Hangzhou went on strike in August and won a few concessions, but Tang said she did not dare to do the same thing.

"My family depends on my income. I have to put up with this situation for as long as I can," she said.

Besides gasoline, costs for repairs and insurance have also risen sharply. Then there are illegal taxis, a growing subway system and the many traffic jams that discourage customers from taking cabs.

Swallowing a quick bowl of rice and soup at a sidewalk eatery, Tang Xiaochong, another cabbie, said most drivers in Shanghai worked 20-hour days - a claim denied by the local Taxi and Auto Renting Industry Association.

"On average, they work 16 hours a day. It is exceptional for a driver to work for 20 hours a day," Hong Tianlin, director of the association, told AFP.

He added that working such long hours was against the rules, because "you are really risking causing an accident".

According to Hong, all drivers were allowed to take time off. "If they don't want to take a vacation, that is their own decision," he said.

Officials at Qiangsheng refused to comment when contacted by AFP.

Hong said there was a dearth of taxi drivers in Shanghai, which had pushed his association to recruit 250 people from neighbouring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

Meanwhile Zhao Jianping, a taxi driver for the company Blue Union, said more and more people were turning their backs on what many consider a lowly profession.

"Most of the drivers are in their 40s or 50s," he said.

"Parents don't want their only child doing this job."