I was a London Taxi Driver for 11 years and through my trade union activity I represented the trade on the London Taxi Board which brought together trade unions, fleet owners, cab manufacturers and radio circuits. The knowledge about the industry of the people who sat on that board was astonishing and were they all with us today, I know they would be disgusted with the way the industry was treated under Boris Johnson as Mayor.
The fight with Uber has been long-running. This is a prime example of new technology and the increased demand for instant, online cashless transactions in every walk of life. And companies like Uber are always looking for the next thing, the next step up in technology which recently led them to test their latest scheme using driverless autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh - but until we reach an unnerving point where Uber have removed the need for the human touch completely, we will always rely on the skills and expert knowledge of drivers to staff our taxis. Uber may have changed the game but it shouldn’t have changed the rules. Cutting corners to threaten taxi drivers’ pay and working rights need not be a result of changes in technology.
There is nothing wrong with developments in technology but what Uber are doing is more than that. They have used this technology to try to classify taxi drivers as self-employed, getting round the usual laws which most decent companies afford their staff; rights to the minimum wage, paid leave, sick leave and maintaining health and safety standards. The app itself also flouts current regulations. It is effectively a tax meter which calculates fares based on distance and time taken. When the arch deregulating Tory Mayor Boris Johnson allowed Uber to be used in this way, he threatened the existence of the licensed taxi industry in London as we knew it.
Uber’s claims that their drivers are ‘partners’ in the company is laughable. It is Uber who operate the car hire platform, who connect thousands of drivers to the customer; it is the passenger who pays Uber for the journey with a percentage of that payment being passed on from Uber to the driver. Uber get to set the cost of journeys, which routes drivers take and they use a rating system to assess individual drivers’ performance – it is every bit an employer/employee relationship. Uber is the Sports Direct of the cab trade.
This is why GMB’s tribunal against Uber is so important. It claims that Uber should simply follow the same employment laws and practices adhered to by responsible companies. They should ensure that its drivers are paid at least the national minimum wage and receive their statutory entitlement to paid holiday. Uber’s failure to make sure its drivers take adequate rest breaks or work a maximum number of hours per week could pose a substantial risk to drivers and all road users given that according to Uber’s CEO, there will be 42,000 Uber drivers in London by the end of 2016. GMB is also right to be challenging Uber on failing to adhere to legal standards on discipline and grievances. Drivers being suspended or deactivated by Uber after making complaints about unlawful treatment without the opportunity to dispute, is totally unacceptable.
This fight against Uber will be a tough one. They are a multibillion dollar company operating across many countries and the outcome of the tribunal between GMB and Uber will have ramifications for the entire industry and its workers. This will be an anxious wait for Uber drivers across the country, but the rewards of minimum wages and being safe in the work place are worth fighting for.
Clive Efford is the Labour MP for Eltham and a GMB member