Mention ride-hailing app Uber in conversation and you tend to get mixed responses. For some, it’s the plucky (dare we say fierce?) underdog fighting for progress against the combined might of entrenched incumbents and luddite regulators. For others, it’s the underhanded invader destroying livelihoods by dodging necessary regulations and denying its own drivers (20,000 in London alone) their rights.
In either case, it faces a lot of opposition. London cabbies regularly logjam the capital’s streets in protest and recently fought (and lost) a court battle to have Uber declared illegal. TfL, meanwhile, is considering obstructive regulations, including one that forces passengers to wait longer for their ride (great idea, that one). Now, Uber faces a new protest – from its own drivers.
Drivers belonging to the GMB union are protesting outside the firm’s UK HQ about an increase in the commission they have to pay. From today, Uber will take a 25% cut from new drivers, up from 20% before.
Speaking on LBC radio, Uber driver and GMB representative James Farrar said this would take an extra £50 per week from their average gross pay. Interestingly, this implies Uber drivers take in £1,000 a week, though Farrar says that because of the long hours they put in, the hourly rate after tax, insurance, fuel and Uber's commission is often little more than £5. ‘They’re doing so well on the backs of us drivers,’ he said.
Uber countered that average hourly earnings were actually £16 last month after it took its cut - that's fuel costs for you...
This comes only days after another group of drivers said it was considering legal action to force Uber to recognise them as employees. There is a difference of course between complaining about pre-existing terms you signed up to and resisting changes to those terms, but in either case it could have unintended consequences.
Uber’s rise is not inevitable like the advance of technology is. Its right to exist in France is being decided in the courts, and it’s only now re-entering South Korea in limited form after being banned in the tech-savvy nation outright. The government and the courts will determine its fate, and if they perceive Uber to be mistreating its drivers it could tip the balance against the Silicon Valley firm.
Uber doesn't seem too worried. 'Our door is always open to address any issues individuals have, including the handful who came along today,' said Uber London general manager Tom Elvidge. 'Two thirds of new partner-drivers joining the Uber platform have been referred by another partner because they love the freedom and flexibility the service provides.'
Long term, of course, Uber doesn’t really want drivers at all. It would be hard to complain that the person behind the wheel was unsafe or indeed exploited if that person was actually a piece of rigorously tested code. But if it wants to survive and grow to reach that point, Uber will need to make sure drivers and regulators stay (or become) happy.