SociaIist Voice (SV) interviewed James Farrar, the secretary of the United Private Hire Drivers- IWGB, that organises amongst Uber drivers in London. The drivers are mainly Bangladeshi people who have organised regular strikes in London.
SV: Can you say what are you fighting for and what has been the response of Sadiq Khan and London Transport?
We are fighting against the unfair decision the Mayor made to remove the congestion charge exemption for minicab drivers while maintaining exemption for black cab drivers. Transport for London’s (TfL) own impact analysis shows that congestion reduction is likely to be only 1% or less, air quality will actually get worse as passengers switch from cleaner minicabs to dirtier taxis and Uber’s market share will grow significantly as they specialise in the congestion zone.[i]
The charge will cost minicab drivers up to £250 per month and they have no ability or authority to recoup that money from customers. Only licensed operators like Uber can do that and they won’t. TfL’s analysis shows that 94% of minicab drivers are BME and 71% come from designated deprived London communities. This charge will cost these households in deprived communities an extra £4,000 per year that neither the families nor the community can afford to lose.
As an alternative we suggested:
- The Mayor stop and cap licensing. Only through reductions in a saturated market can we we see real reductions in congestion. It requires primary legislation but the Mayor has done little to lobby for these powers.
- He could impose worker rights as a condition of license for companies like Uber. Frank Field MP identified that Uber drivers in London were working in sweatshop conditions but the Mayor did nothing to address the problem. He later wrote to the Mayor to advise him he has powers to act to impose worker rights conditions. The Mayor disputes this but has published no legal opinion. This is the very least he could do.
- He could add a congestion surcharge to the operator license fee for companies like Uber. This would again give them the economic incentive to Uber to reduce over supply. It would also increase prices so that demand is stemmed and passengers are nudged to take public transport.
- The Mayor could provide 4,000 rest areas in the central zone as essential operating infrastructure for minicabs so that they can stop between jobs and get out of the traffic and not contribute to congestion.
Currently minicab drivers take home about £5 per hour and work 30-35 hours per week just to break even. Most work 70+ hours per week. These extra charges mean extra hours.
The response from the Mayor and TfL has been marginalising, dismissive and disingenuous. TfL refuse to recognise us or any dedicated TU representation for 110k minicab drivers but recognise 5 driver rep bodies for 23k taxi drivers who are white British. In the impact assessment TfL suggest maybe operators will pay the congestion charge – they will not. They suggest maybe drivers can just do more jobs to make up the cost but how would that reduce congestion and how many more hours can we work? I believe TfL and the Mayor and are pursuing a cheap cabs policy predicated on sweated labour. He is not prepared to do anything that might disturb that. He and TfL believe we are politically disposable as voters, as citizens, as workers and as licensees.
SV: How would you describe the feeling amongst Uber drivers, how many strikes have you had and what are your plans now?
Right now I would say the feeling is one of anger. But the anger is channelled into determined organising and protesting. Minicab drivers have never before staged these kinds of protests in London. I think the Mayor and TfL miscalculated. It’s been the last straw for many after a series of punishing and insulting measures from TfL. Drivers know what is being done is not fair and is being done for political and financial reasons. If it truly was going to clean up the air and reduce congestion maybe the unfairness in treatment would be easier to accept. But the victimisation has been blatant and a bridge too far. Things have fundamentally changed in the relationship between TfL and minicab drivers who have hitherto remained silent and things will never again be the same. Drivers have at last found their voice.
SV: As Uber are international have been able to link up with other countries and how is that going?
To some degree yes, But this industry is very locally organised and regulated. One of our great achievements has been our ability to organise around the UK. We have lots of contact with international groups and much solidarity but the context is different even if the business model is not.
SV: What would you like to say to the other unions in struggle and the labour movement in general?
We have had the immense privilege of starting from the bottom. We have had no help, no sponsorship, no leg up. We take nothing for granted. We don’t know any other way and we have no legacy. So in many ways we have little to say to other unions as we have so little history but in other ways we have much to say as our battle is white hot and on two fronts: an abusive employer and an unjust regulator. All I can say is that success when it comes it comes from the hard work of grass roots organising and developing trust and relationships over time. Woody Allen once said 50% of success is showing up and it is true for our fight too. We keep focused on organising and serving our members consistently, continuously and intensively. What can we say to other unions and the labour movement? Always ask, what problem are you trying to solve? Then just do that. And don’t be afraid to fight and don’t be afraid to lose. Maybe it’s easier for us to be fearless – we have nothing to lose.