Let's not pretend London's Uber ban is good for workers

Whatever you think of their taskmaster, 40,000 minicab drivers could soon be out of work.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 25 Sep 2017

Perhaps Transport for London’s decision to ban Uber from the capital’s streets shouldn’t come as a surprise. The well-funded taxi app has stepped on plenty of regulatory toes as it has ruthlessly expanded its way to western world domination. Claims it mistreats drivers and tales of an aggressive, testosterone-fuelled company culture that forced out its CEO earlier this year have muddied its name even further. A backlash is long overdue.

Whether you agree with TFL’s assessment that Uber is not a ‘fit and proper’ minicab operator, it’s hard to deny it provides a phenomenal service. Its low prices and speedy, convenient service have transformed the way Londoners and many in other cities across the country and around the world get around.

No wonder some have been so aghast, wondering aloud on social media how on earth they will get home after a night out without taking out a mortgage to pay for a black cab or spending several hours on an inconvenient night bus. More than 750,000 people have now signed a petition against TFL’s decision.

But it’s not just spoiled millennial revellers who stand to lose out. Uber works with (they claim not to employ them) 40,000 drivers in London. Some of those cheering for the ban claim to do so on the basis that it exploits its workforce. But it’s hard to see how they will be better off now.

It’s not like they can just slink off back to regular minicab firms and nothing else will change. The market for their services largely exists simply because of Uber. In the last two year, as the app’s popularity has soared, the number of minicab licences in the capital went up by almost 50%. 

And let’s not kid ourselves that back street cab companies somehow make better bosses. Virtually all taxi drivers, whether of black cabs or minicabs, tend to be self-employed, with all the instability and lack of benefits that entails (the same, by the way, applies to most front-line logistics workers - those delivering takeaways and online shopping packages). 

I’ve never spoken with an Uber driver with anything but bad things to say about their previous firm. When I interviewed some struggling London minicab operators last year, one of their biggest problems was drivers flocking to the app. 

But whether you’re a customer or a driver, don’t despair just yet. Uber is appealing the decision and its cars will remain on the road for the time being. TFL’s talk is tough, but it’s probably hoping the taxi app will address the concerns it has raised - including how it deals with reports of crime and its criminal record checking process - and be able to hang on to its licence (just imagine the strain on the already creaking tube and bus networks otherwise). The same applies to London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who backed TFL’s decision but could find himself on the receiving end of voter fury once the next election rolls around.

The (black cab supporting) Licensed Taxi Drivers Association and its army of Twitter trolls has been gleeful about today’s decision, but they shouldn’t pop their prosecco corks just yet.

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