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27 September 2017updated 17 Jan 2024 6:58am

Uber drivers

By James Farrar

Transport for London’s decision to revoke Uber’s license came as a shock to 40,000 Uber drivers last week. In a short time Uber went from having an uncomfortably close relationship with TfL bosses to being put in the dog house. But the biggest surprise of all is that TfL never challenged Uber’s terrible record on worker rights in this decision. This means the door remains open for continued exploitation of workers in the minicab trade, with or without Uber.

The Mayor says we drivers should blame Uber for our new predicament while the TUC and the GMB hailed the decision as a “big win” for worker rights. None of this played well with our members. They 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 loom, you would 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. From TfL, our somewhat cruel licensing authority to whom minicab drivers pay in £20m per annum for 73 per cent of the budget, we’ve heard nothing. Indeed, TfL has consistently denied minicab drivers the right to dedicated union representation in the stakeholder process – the only licensee 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 Uber’s army of expensive lawyers to defeat their appeal against last year’s ruling in our favour confirming the right to the minimum wage for every hour logged on the platform for work. Making Uber obey the law will make a huge difference for those of us earning £5 per hour and regularly working a 91 hour week. I know we will prevail but I can’t help but feel bitter that TfL never lifted a finger to help protect us and every other licensed minicab driver. 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 “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! And why is it even down to us to have the law enforced, isn’t that the government’s job?

So, why did TfL cancel Uber’s license? Four reasons were cited: poor medical and criminal records screening, failure to cooperate 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.

The first two issues are 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. Just like the 51 per cent of minicab drivers we surveyed, I was assaulted by a passenger and Uber frustrated the police investigation. For 10 weeks, they dragged their heels & even made bogus requests for the police to get a court order before finally disclosing the assailant’s identity. How many other driver assault cases got spiked in just this way?

However, failing to co-operate with police after a sexual assault is unforgivable. But TfL hardly covers itself in glory on this score either with 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 never took up the offer and continued to treat sex crime 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 a serious problem with ride share services such as UberPool. Yet, TfL pre-empted a consultation on the very topic to give Uber the green to launch it. They told the media it “sought and received assurances” from Uber but refused to disclose same to us drivers exposed at the sharp end. TfL fought our FOI request right up to the ICO appeals process arguing it needed a confidential “safe space” for, among other reasons, 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. The Mayor’s softening approach with Uber presents an opportunity for him to insist on worker rights and start a long over due clean up of the entire sector. This in turn could forge a template to steer the broader gig economy towards a final reconciliation between fairness and flexibility. What could be a better legacy than that?

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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