In a room filled with angry people, he could feel their eyes on his back.

If he spoke up, he knew his life would never be the same.

Warning messages had been sent to his cellphone already. One read: "Don't you dare do this."

It was Jan. 20, 2015, and the city council chamber was jammed with people, most there to vent their anger about Uber, the ride-service App they believed would take money out of their pockets.

But Nawaz Goraya was worried that the overheated Uber debate would once again ignore the silent majority, the hundreds of men and women who drive 12-hours shifts in someone else's cab, people with few rights and no real voice.

When his turn came, Goraya told council members about the plight of taxi renters, the hardships they endure, the fees and arbitrary fines they're forced to pay.

He asked council to consider uncapping the number of taxi plates, to put an end to the grey market that sees them trade hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When he finished, he turned and looked at the audience.

"Every single eye was on me," he says. "I was scared."

That evening was the beginning of the end of Goraya's life as a taxi driver, the only real job he'd had since he came to Canada from Pakistan two decades ago.

The threatening calls started right away, he says. His plate owner told him to get lost. He found another cab to drive. But he would work for a week, then his new plate owner would get harassed.

Goraya bounced from cab to cab, and finally got squeezed out altogether.

"It's still going on today," he says.

Plates are like gold

In the hierarchical taxi industry, plates are like mining claims in a gold-rush town.

Those lucky enough, or wealthy enough, to buy them control the market. The City of Edmonton has capped the number of plates at 1,265.

At the top are the brokers, who in some cases own dozens of plates. Then come the individual owners. At the bottom are renters, those who pay $450 to $500 a week for the right to drive taxis they don't own.

Renters pay for gas. And for fines levied by the owners for everything from improper dress to vehicle damage.

It is a business run on handshakes.

In a market economy, in theory, people have the right to buy and sell labour.

"If you don't like the people you're going to work for, go work somewhere else," says Paul Dempsey, a McGill University professor who has written research papers on the taxi industry.

"If you only want to work certain hours, then tell the employer those are the only hours you'll work. If that's mutually acceptable, then those will be the conditions under which you'll operate."

Taxi pictograph

This image shows the approximate proportion of licencees, or plate owners, compared to the number of taxi drivers based on analysis of City of Edmonton data. (Laura Osman/CBC)

But Goraya and other drivers who spoke to CBC say their industry doesn't operate that way.

In their supply-and-demand market, there are about 3,200 people licensed to drive taxis in Edmonton, and simply not enough cabs to go around.

"The owners don't want to leave a paper trail," Goraya says. "All taxis are rented in cash. If you ask any owner, 'I want a receipt,' they refuse you right away."

A renter who complains soon has no cab to drive, he says.

Taxi plates are capped, Dempsey says, to ensure that owners can make money.

Cities impose regulations, Dempsey says, but those typically deal with setting fare rates, insurance and maintenance and safety issues, and have nothing to do with how drivers are paid, or how many hours they work.

"Imagine if, at an airport, every consumer were going to each taxi driver to say, 'How much will you charge me to take me to my hotel?' The queues would be unworkable. It is much easier and simpler for the passenger to get in the first taxi in the queue and not worry about the price."

'They have no say, they have no power'

Sandra Rowson worked in Edmonton's taxi industry for a decade, mainly for brokers, hiring and firing drivers, handing out fines and handling insurance claims.

"The renters are the ones who are suffering," she says. "It's not the owner, it's not the broker, it's these poor renters. They have no say, they have no power, they have no nothing."

Every cab driver is a sub-contractor, she says.

Suzy Carpo

Suzy Carpo drove a cab for years before she was suspended for not paying fines levied by the taxi owner, which she says were arbitrary and unfair. (Sam Martin/CBC)

"If there's a dispute between a renter and an owner, the broker is told to take the owner's side, all the time. If you stick up for the renters, as an employee, you're out too.

"I've been forced to fire people with no cause. I've been forced to suspend people with no proof."

Suzy Carpo drove a cab for years. Her father and brother were both taxi drivers.

She once dreamed of getting her own plate. But there was no way to save up that kind of money. Carpo says plate owners and brokers can levy fines for almost anything. Renters have to pay up, or get out.

'The rules change every day'

"Somebody called and said that you gave somebody the finger," she says, by way of example. "Or you're wearing jeans or you're wearing flip-flops. We're going to fine you $50 for that. The rules change every day. The more you fight them, the easier it is for them to get rid of you."

When her own fines started to pile up, she asked for proof she had committed the infractions. Her paycheque was withheld and she was suspended.

"As a renter, I'm expendable," she says. "There's 400 guys waiting to get at my taxi right now. As a renter, there's really no advocate for us."

Phil Strong, president of Yellow Cab, says the drivers he knows make decent livings and are treated with respect.

"There's no way we're abusing drivers," he says. "If they feel abused by one broker they can go to another. And ultimately, if they feel abused by everyone, why are they in the industry?"

But renters say they have few other options. They can't pick and choose their shifts, so most get stuck driving nights.

"The plate owner has the ultimate power in this game," Goraya says. "The plate owner can make up a story, find a dent on the taxi, and say, 'This was done during your shift.' And there's nothing you can say."

Several taxi plates are for sale on Kijiji. The asking prices range from $130,000 to $150,000.

Strong says plates sold for $210,000, on average, before Uber came to town, but the price has dropped because of uncertainty in the marketplace.

"There's a reason that taxis are capped," he says, "and that's in order that everybody can make a living wage. In the past, prior to capping the licences, people weren't making a living driving cab."

Briefcase filled with cash

Goraya knows how some of those coveted plates change hands.

Four men meet outside the downtown building where licences are issued. Two go upstairs to handle the paperwork. Two stay in the car, with a briefcase filled with cash.

"There's no paper trail left," he says. "It happens about six blocks from police headquarters, and it happens in the building of city officials."

Goraya and other renters say they've been ignored during months of Uber debates.

"Race has a lot of things to do with it," he says. "This industry is occupied by foreigners and immigrants, and as long as they don't bother us, they can do whatever they want to do."

Garry Dzwenka, director of licensing for the city, says when he took the job in April 2011 he was unfamiliar with the taxi business.

"It's not like the trucking industry, where there's some framework, some structure to it, some normal business practices that happen," he says. "A lot of the deals are done by verbal commitment, or a handshake. It's a nice way of doing business, but in today's day and age, especially when you're talking about the cost of running the business, and the cost of running a cab, it seems not to be the proper way of doing things."

'I can see their frustration'

Dzwenka says he feels sympathy for renters.

"I can see their frustration, absolutely. But that is a matter of contract between two parties, which the city is not a party to. So, it's a matter of doing due diligence and getting the best contract you can. Don't come to the city and say, 'You have to get involved.' "

Coun. Andrew Knack says uncapping the number of plates will be part of Tuesday's discussions at city hall. He thinks allowing more competition would give drivers the option to work for Uber or other similar companies.

"I have a lot of sympathy for them, because I think we've heard from a number of taxi drivers, especially more recently, that have felt like they've been taken advantage of," Knack says. "They're actually a group that I don't think have been heard very often in this debate."

For his part, Goraya has spent much of the last year looking for a job. He supports his wife and two young children by working occasional shifts in construction, or on furniture moving crews.

It's not the way he dreamed life would be when he left Pakistan in 1995, by coincidence, the same year the city capped the number of taxi plates.

He thought he would drive for a few years, finish his education, find a better job. But he got trapped in the life of night shifts and seven-day weeks, where he started every Monday in the hole, knowing he had to pay the rent and gas before even thinking about earning the average $400 paycheque he took home.

Goraya says only city council can change the broken system. Councillors could vote to up-cap the number of plates and open up the market.

"This is so heartbreaking for the renters. If you went and you spoke with them, and asked how their day was going, and you asked them to please be honest — if you are not brought to tears, there is something wrong with your heart. There are hundreds of them. They are the silent victims of this industry."