The decision taken by Transport for London (TFL) to not grant Uber’s private hire operators license is welcomed by RMT and the wider taxi industry.
Since its inception in 2012, Uber has operated on the fringes of regulation. Breaching legislative practices established to govern both the taxi & private hire industries.
However, these appear to not have been the reason behind TFL’s decision to relicense the $70bn corporate multi-national. Instead, the licensing authority deemed the company to be ‘not of fit and proper character’ to operate within the capital.
To the uninitiated and 3.5m users of Uber this appears some what opaque. A symbol of the archaic governance of an industry, in the grip of the city’s 25,000 London black cab drivers perhaps?
But to those of us working within the industry it is the basis of a key pillar; passenger safety.
Since licensing in 1998, the private hire sector has steadily risen to legitimacy accompanying the licensed hackney carriage trade in London. The fundamental difference between both services is that taxis (black cabs) can be hailed off the street or from a taxi rank. The opposing private hire service is required to be ‘pre-booked’ and is not permitted to accept hiring’s directly by prospective passengers (Uber being the latter).
The distinction is born out of a system that a licensed taxi driver is regulated to a higher standard (Enhanced DBS checked – Disclosure & Barring Service) and has undergone a rigorous character assessment by way of the ‘Knowledge of London’ examination (an extensive learning process that simultaneously determines an individual’ suitability over a period of years). On the other end of the spectrum, a private hire driver isn’t required to undergo any assessment and can apply for a license by way of an administrative application (and only in recent times has TFL made it a requirement for drivers to undergo DBS checks). The safe guard is that by working via an ‘operator’ a record of the journey has been taken and despatched, providing safety for the passenger.
As a private hire operator, Uber are required to undertake ‘pre-bookings’ inline with regulation set out by the licensing authority (in this case TFL). However, in its pursuit of total market saturation Uber has expedited process and cut corners. Ultimately at the expense of the safety of the travelling public.
The company has suppressed complaints made by passengers against drivers that were of a criminal nature, breaching its duty as an operator. This was coupled by the fact that despite required to do so, it had chosen to circumvent TFL’s DBS system in favour of its own choice. Permitting 13,000 of its drivers to undertake bookings in London without the required background checks. If that was not enough to raise eyebrows, the company also ‘streamlined’ its drivers medical applications by procuring the services of GPs NOT registered by the GMC (General Medical Council).
This is brought into sharp focus when we remember the tragic incident in 2015 of a bin lorry careering into pedestrians, killing 6 people in Glasgow. The result of a driver concealing his medical records from his employer that showed he suffered from blackouts.
Such practices demonstrated by Uber can be summarised by comment made by the former Labour MP for Hartlepool and chair of the Business, Innovation & Skills committee, Iain Wright. Who in 2015 described the company as ‘a seedy backstreet mini cab firm’.
Its not only its operational duties that Uber flouts. In 2016 members of the GMB & UPHD took forward an employment tribunal against the company that found its drivers were entitled to statutory employment rights under ‘worker‘ status. And are not deemed self-employed, as professed by Uber. This was compounded by Frank Field MP for Birkenhead who produced the report Sweated Labour: Uber & the Gig Economy.
In both cases, testimonials from drivers claimed an average rate £4.86 (consider that the wage for a basic standard of living in London is £9.40) and the need to work prolonged shifts, over 12 hours under extreme fatigue. All this before recovering costs on fuel & vehicle maintenance.
The culture of worker exploitation and disregarding of licensing regulation allows Uber to provide a cheap, accessible service. Yet the clamour of public outcry on the decision appears to overlook the facts laid out. To the ardent free-marketeer this is an attack on ‘consumer choice’ and ‘innovation’. Any regard for the workers is scant, despite cynical concerns of the plight of the existing 40,000 drivers. To the ostensible champion of social justice the reality proves an annoyance, an inconvenience. Previous held beliefs that the gig economy represented a model society that is connected, integrated and egalitarian may be starting to fade. The true face of Uber is one of monolithic aggression that disregards any obstacle to profit.
Fit & Proper? Not a chance.