The drama surrounding Uber’s legal and public relations battle to be relicensed in London descended further into farce last week, with the news that the firm is now begging the mayor to grant them an interim 18-month license. This parole period would allow Uber to avoid having to plead for its licence in Westminster Magistrates Court on 25 June 2018 and offer them another chance to prove themselves to Transport for London.
It’s a strategy that reeks of desperation and comes on top of an intense, money-no-object PR campaign. This week, we learned Uber paid Channel 4 to air a series of advertorial programmes featuring unlikely “reality” in-car scenarios, including that of four Manchester United stars sharing a ride in an Uber. On 24 May, Uber’s UK general manager used an opinion slot in London’s Evening Standard newspaper to declare the company was “on a new journey”.
Recently, Uber offered some limited benefits to drivers in the form of additional insurance cover for accident, illness and paternity leave. But this is no substitute for statutory worker rights, including the minimum wage. In November, Uber lost an appeal contesting its obligations on this front. For both Uber and our regulatory authorities, obeying all laws should be Uber’s point of departure.
But there are signs that Uber’s force-fed PR campaign may yet win it shelter in high places. Despite our call on Uber to prove it was serious in turning over a new leaf by halting its legal appeals against us, the mayor’s spokesperson unhelpfully told the press he hoped Uber’s offering of insurance cover would “become the norm across the gig economy”. This is the wrong political aspiration for the mayor. He should instead be demanding gig economy firms obey the law, respect worker rights and pay a living wage.
For five years, Transport for London tolerated Uber. Leon Daniels, TfL’s managing director for surface transport, regularly corresponded with Uber, trove of emails uncovered by Freedom of Information requests revealed. In September 2017, shortly before retiring, Daniels decided not to renew Uber’s licence. Nevertheless, Uber continued to attempt to use TfL as evidence of a valid business model. In evidence for our case, Uber told the Employment Tribunal Judge that TfL had TfL had “vetted and verified” its business model “before and after issuing the operator’s licence”. Whatever the intentions of TfL at this point, the message to the judge from Uber was unmistakeable: TfL has no problem with us, neither should you.
Indeed, Daniels did commission a legal review of Uber’s business model in 2014, which recommended maintaining the licence. And during Uber’s initial five-year licence term TfL inspectors cleared Uber no less than ten times and in later years spent close to £500,000 per annum auditing them. Then in 2017, TfL conducted a another business model review with the assistance of Deloitte and this time judged it was “minded” to think Uber’s business model was illegal after all.
Daniels’ 2014 review also controversially took a view that Uber passengers enter into a contract directly with the driver, to which Uber is not a party. This conclusion was roundly rejected by the Employment Tribunal Judge in 2016 saying “the supposed driver/passenger contract is a pure fiction which bears no relation to the real dealings and relationships between the parties”. TfL’s first responsibility should be to do all possible to protect passengers and drivers, not help shield Uber from liability for both.
The further danger now for TfL is that political manoeuvring could drag its already shredded reputation further below the water line. It may be easier for some City Hall executives to see Uber win back its licence in court. As LBC’s political editor Theo Usherwood put it, Sadiq Khan is most likely keen to avoid the political backlash of becoming “the mayor who banned Uber, rather than just the mayor who stood up to Uber”.
I say it’s time for the mayor to stand up “for” worker rights not just “to” Uber. Admittedly, there are limits to the mayor’s power. But when it comes to keeping global mega powers in check, and protecting the most vulnerable workers in London, there should be no limits to his political ambition.
James Farrar is chair of the Private Hire Drivers branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain’s and the co-claimant in Aslam & Farrar vs Uber.
This article was updated on 6 June 2018 to make it clear that Leon Daniels made the decision not to renew Uber’s licence before retiring, and clarify the nature of his correspondence with Uber.