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29 September 2017updated 17 Jan 2024 5:49am

Transport for London must stand up for workers as well as Uber passengers

The Mayor says we drivers should blame Uber for our misfortune. But TfL has long had the opportunity to regulate the sector.

By James Farrar

Transport for London’s decision to revoke Uber’s licence came as something of a shock to 40,000 Uber drivers last week. In a short time, Uber went from having an inappropriately close relationship with TfL bosses to being put in the dog house.

The Mayor says we drivers should blame Uber for our misfortune. The TUC and the GMB hailed the decision as a “big win” for worker rights. None of this played with our members who now face a loss of work and income while saddled with unmanageable vehicle debt. In any other segment of the economy, when such catastrophic job losses occur, you could expect a government minister or two to have parachuted in by now. We wrote to the Mayor and asked for an urgent meeting to see how he and TfL might help worried drivers but we’re still waiting for a reply [have they got one yet]. From TfL, our licensing authority to whom minicab drivers pay in £20m a year, we’ve heard nothing. Indeed, TfL has consistently denied minicab drivers the right to dedicated representation in the stakeholder process – the only licencee group still excluded.

But we refuse to be hidden victims of the gig economy. This week, with the backing of our plucky IWGB union, Yaseen Aslam and I go back to court against Uber. We will be taking on the best lawyering money can buy to defeat Uber’s appeal against last year’s ruling in our favour confirming our right to the minimum wage for every hour logged on the platform for work. I know we will prevail but I can’t help but feel bitter. If TfL was doing its job as regulator we would not see sweated labour fester in the licensed transport system. I’ll never forget the stomach churning feeling of betrayal when I read and heard Uber’s evidence that TfL had “fully vetted and verified” their business model. What was being implied by Uber to the Judge was clear: “TfL doesn’t have a problem with our rotten business model, so neither should you.”

So, if TfL didn’t cancel Uber’s licence for its dismal record on worker rights, then what’s the problem?

Three reasons were cited: poor medical and criminal records screening, failure to co-operate with the police investigating cab related sexual assaults and the controversial use of “greyball” in the US, a software tool to screen for and avoid picking up compliance officers on mystery shopping trips.

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The screening issue is puzzling because these are prerequisite certifications a driver must present to TfL before being licensed to then work for Uber. It was TfL’s process that failed here not Uber’s.

It is true that Uber has form in not co-operating with the police if it can get away with it. Just like 50 per cent of minicab drivers, I was assaulted on the job by a passenger. Here too, Uber tried to gum up the process. For 10 weeks, it dragged their heels and wasted valuable police time. It even made bogus requests for the police to get a court order before finally disclosing the assailant’s identity. I wonder how many other driver assault cases got buried at Uber’s plush Aldgate offices.

However, failing to co-operate with police after a sexual assault is unforgivable. Countless people were placed at risk and an inevitable second crime could and should have been prevented. But TfL hardly covers itself in glory on this score either. It has a history of secrecy, inaction and incompetence. Last year, we challenged TfL to work with us to improved safeguarding awareness, intelligence sharing and cooperation with the police. TfL declined the offer. Instead, it continued to treat the matter as a trade issue, with regular discussions with taxi and operator representatives while excluding minicab drivers. We even launched a Change,org petition demanding transparency and engagement but all efforts came to nothing with TfL.

Passenger on passenger assault is also a serious risk with ride share services such as UberPool. Yet, TfL pre-empted a consultation on the very topic to give Uber the green light to launch this dangerous service. TfL told the media it “sought and received assurances” from Uber but refused to disclose same to us drivers, who are exposed at the sharp end. TfL fought against disclosure right up to the Information Commissioner’s Office appeals process. Our regulator argued disclosure to drivers would violate a “safe space” of confidential engagement with Uber deemed necessary to make “Uber’s relicensing process more efficient”.

Let’s not kid ourselves, the minicab industry was a festering cess pit of labour abuse long before Uber arrived. Unless the Mayor takes this opportunity to stand up for worker rights as a condition of licensing it will continue to be so, with or without Uber. He now has a unique opportunity to forge a template to steer the broader gig economy towards a final reconciliation between fairness and flexibility. What could be a better legacy?

James Farrar is the co-claimant in the Uber tribunal and the chair of the IWGB’s United Private Hire Drivers branch

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