Uber: workers’ loss?

Submitted by Matthew on 4 October, 2017 - 12:20

James Farrar, chair of the United Private Hire Drivers’ branch of the IWGB union, spoke to Solidarity about working for Uber and the cancellation of their licence.


I am a founder as well as the chair of the United Private Hire Drivers’ (UPHD) branch of the IWGB union.

We came into being because there was no dedicated organisation for minicab drivers in London. All the other trade unions also represent taxi drivers and operators. Some refuse membership to private hire drivers. The industry has been rife with labour abuse for decades. Uber has taken that to an industrial scale.

For our members it’s a bit like being a boiling frog. Conditions around you are turning hostile very quickly and you’re trying to adapt. So if it took you 40 hours a week to earn £500 four years ago, it takes 65 hours to earn that today. Drivers have in their head a figure of what they have to bring home each week and they stay out until they get it. The market is flooded: that doesn’t just create more competition but it also makes the job harder because the roads are more congested, the infrastructure cannot deal with the traffic.

Drivers are earning £5-6/hour and working, typically, 35 hours to break even, and the sky’s the limit after that – many work 60 to 90 hours a week.

As app models like Uber encroach upon private hire rights, the legal situation is unclear. Drivers bear the legal risk. I could go down the City and rob and plunder and get a knighthood. But if I’m a minicab driver and I get the rules on “plying” wrong, I end up with a criminal record.

80% of minicab drivers in London come from ethnic minority communities. 80% of taxi drivers are white British, according to TfL. Minicab drivers contribute 73% of the licence revenue; the rest is made up by taxi drivers and operators. Minicab drivers pay £20m per year for their licences. Uber up to now has paid £500 per year.

If you ever attend a mass on-boarding session at Uber, they make a big deal of saying, there’s no controllers here: it’s all egalitarian, it’s run by the algorithm, whoever is fastest gets the job. And at that point a big cheer normally goes up. A lot of guys would take less money to get away from the old conditions, with a controller. With the old controllers, you were absolutely under their control. They had the power to feed some and starve others. They’d demand bribes, you’d have to get them food, pay them rent, it was horrible. A lot of drivers were glad to get away from that.

But as is often the way, the algorithms have learned the worst habits of people: in terms of starving some people of work and feeding others. We see that now.

We are a union and we have members who work for Uber. We don’t say that they are not real jobs, not real work, or that the market will provide a solution with some other operator. We support them wherever they work, whatever the conditions might be. Our job is to get in there and improve those conditions. We don’t pick and choose.

The TUC said that de-licensing Uber was a big win for workers’ rights. I don’t see that. Livelihoods are threatened. Drivers face ruin because they have vehicle debts, a stranded asset, that they’re trapped with. There’s no redundancy pay, no undertaking to transfer drivers to a new operator: they’re on their own. So I am disappointed not to see more compassion for those workers. But that’s what we’re here for. That’s our job.

Uber and TfL were working together like crazy to speed up the licensing process in 2015. The wheels came off that: but it’s TfL’s fault.

The sex offences are terrible. They should never have happened. We have been working for a year and a half to improve safeguarding, to share intelligence, to work to resolve the problem. But Uber and TfL refused to work with us.

But what TfL and the mayor never put on the table was Uber’s approach to workers’ rights, which has been described as akin to “sweated labour”.

Now, sweatshops were never known for their high safety standards. If not to protect us, TfL should enforce labour standards to protect the traveling public.

I do not know of another operator in London that meets minimum standards of labour rights. What TfL should do, instead of de-licensing Uber, is enforce the law. Why should we have to be the ones to take Uber to court, to take on their armies of lawyers and PR people? Is this what we have to go through in this country, just to get the minimum wage? We should have people willing to enforce the law on our behalf, in terms of employment and transportation regulation.

A proper compliance operation should make it clear to the operator where, and how quickly, it needs to improve.

There is a stakeholder programme, and monthly and quarterly meetings with Mike Brown, the Transport Commissioner. 23,000 taxi drivers are represented at these monthly and quarterly meetings about compliance. They are represented by five organisations including three trade unions. 120,000 minicab drivers have no guaranteed representation, at all, despite the fact that we contribute 73% of the licensing income. Without our voice, how can TfL possibly enforce standards? That leads to bad policy outcomes and bad compliance performance. TfL is denying themselves an important part of their arsenal.

I consider this a further violation of our rights.