To Uber or not to Uber

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 08, 2018

The wheels turn: Through trade unions such as GMB, some Uber drivers have argued that they are entitled to basic rights of employees. A tribunal even concurred with their demands in October 2016 Image Reuters/ Toby Meville   -  reuters/ toby meville

London can’t seem to make up its mind about the taxi service it has become so used to

Visitors to London in recent years may have come across long lines of iconic black taxis coming to a standstill at central London locations, repeatedly blasting their horns. Their protests have been focused on the rising prominence of Uber, the taxi app which first acquired a licence as a private hire operator in the city in 2012. The service, which has made travel across London substantially cheaper than black taxis, or indeed many other mini-taxi services, has grown rapidly over the last five years. With an estimated 40,000 drivers on its books, Uber has nearly twice the number of black taxi drivers in London.

While some have criticised the ease with which the taxi app was granted its London licence (Action for Cabbies launched an unsuccessful campaign to raise funds to push for a judicial review into the decision-making process last year, with claims that former senior Cabinet members had lobbied on the company’s behalf), the relationship between Uber and London has long been fraught with tension. The company’s decision to launch the ride-sharing scheme — UberPOOL — without consulting TfL (Transport for London) in 2014 angered the authorities, according to emails uncovered by Financial Times. The US company has regularly challenged efforts by London to tighten the rules governing private hire cars. For example, Uber has opposed a requirement introduced in 2016 by TfL that all private-hire drivers pass an English language test.

Others have raised concerns about the impact of the burgeoning number of such drivers in London (around 120,000) brought about by the app-based taxi revolution, not limited to Uber.

A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Taxis earlier this year called for the government to empower the London mayor to cap the number of such vehicles.

Backed by mayor Sadiq Khan, TfL’s decision to withdraw Uber’s licence to operate (against which it has the right to appeal) in September has triggered mixed reactions in a city where many have become heavily reliant on its services — from workers who use it to reach morning meetings to the young who used the pocket-friendly UberPOOL to enable a social life. Some even suggested it made travel easier for those from ethnic minorities — including women in headscarves — who feel they are more welcomed by Uber drivers, a majority of whom are from similar backgrounds.

The situation of the drivers, too, has been a divisive issue, as casual conversations with them have shown. To some it was an opportunity to move away from taxi firms that tended to work them to the bone, with the flexibility of choosing their hours in the same way as drivers of black taxis.

However, extended conversations with drivers also underscored some of the pitfalls: with so many drivers entering the system, competition is fierce and earnings for cross-London trips barely enough to meet overheads. Some choose different tactics to get around such problems — working via the GMB union to argue that they are entitled to basic rights of employees (including minimum wage, sick pay and so on).

In October last year an employment tribunal concurred with them, leaving Uber in a potentially difficult spot, which it has been challenging since.

Other concerns have begun to build against the company too: Jolyon Maugham, an outspoken barrister who directs the Good Law Project Limited, is crowdfunding an initiative to push the company to pay VAT. He’s raised over £100,000 till date.

Earlier this year, a senior police officer cited concerns about Uber’s policy for reporting serious crimes, highlighting one case where a driver accused of sexual assault continued working for the company and then went on to carry out another attack. In 2016, 32 allegations of sexual assault were made against Uber drivers in London. These factors came together when the decision over the licence renewal came before TfL. Uber swiftly attempted to control the narrative, suggesting it was a case of lobbying by those representing black cabs, which, alongside TfL, were keen to stifle innovation and change. “By wanting to ban our app from the capital, Transport for London and their chairman the mayor have given in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice,” reads a petition set up in the hours after the ban was announced. It has attracted over 840,000 signatures.

A petition supporting the decision to not renew the licence has attracted a mere 15,000-odd votes. However, Uber has somewhat changed tactic since, being more contrite in its approach and acknowledging mistakes, which it would attempt to rectify. The company is likely aware that its dealings in London will be watched keenly by authorities across the world — seeking to balance the role that technology and innovation can play in lightening the burden on their travel systems, against the cold realities of business and ensuring safe passage.

Published on October 06, 2017

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