DUBAI // Taxi drivers in the emirate are illegally earning commissions and free massages for taking customers to health and spa clubs.
A spokesman for the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) said the practice could taint Dubai's image, and the authority would urge taxi companies to discourage it.
As part of a marketing plan, the clubs and spas distribute cards, akin to customer loyalty cards, to drivers who can use them to earn as much as Dh100 for every customer they recommend. Cabbies can also claim a free massage for every five clients they bring.
"Only after the deal is finalised, drivers get paid," said Abdul, a taxi driver. "If we bring five customers regularly they give us a free massage.
"Usually it is tourists who ask for massages. I take people to centres where I can make some money on the fare and get a commission. This way there is a double benefit."
Taxi drivers either directly solicit customers after picking them up from airports or hotels, or wait for passengers to approach them.
One driver said he would ring up the massage centre after a passenger sought the service. "If they ask me, I take them to centres in Karama, or Bur Dubai," he said. "I can't compel them to go for a massage. That would be wrong. It is based on what the customer wants."
Massage centre staff place cards on taxi windshields or windows.
"When we park our cars for a meal and come back, we find the cards," said Hafiz, another driver. "Sometimes they stand outside the company gate as early as 4am to distribute them."
Hafiz acknowledged it was "unethical" to earn money this way, but said many drivers regularly took cuts to meet daily targets or pay RTA fines.
The RTA said this was an "unhealthy practice" and was illegal. "They should not do jobs other than driving taxis," said Furat Al Amri, the director of franchising and enforcement at the RTA's public transport agency.
"They should know all locations but not advertise for other companies. If you are working as a taxi driver, you cannot do other work, as per the labour law."
Mr Al Amri said labour laws allowed employees to work only for their visa sponsors. "We are worried about this," he said. "We do not want this practice to be started like in Thailand. It will impact the image of Dubai. We need taxis to concentrate on their business."
Mr Al Amri said taxi companies should include warnings in drivers' training not to take commissions. The authority will send official notices to all companies, asking them to notify drivers that it is against the law. But he said there was no provision in the law to fine errant drivers.
The Department of Economic Development and Dubai Police declined to comment on driver commissions.
A spokeswoman for the newly opened Massage and Spa Centre on the rooftop of the Holiday Inn Bur Dubai said taxi drivers brought them customers for Dh100 ahead.
"We get mostly tourists from all over the world," said the spokeswoman. "It really depends on the taxis. They inform us when they have a client. After the client has paid, we give the commission to the taxi driver."
Holiday Inn Bur Dubai said the spa club was not affiliated with its operations. "It is a third-party organisation who lease and run their property independently," said Monjed Salha, the hotel's general manager.
Another centre said it charged clients more if the deal was arranged by the driver. "We increase the rate, depending on the massage they choose," said a staff member from the Golden Sun Relaxation and Massage centre in Karama.