By Mike Hedges
This week Unite Cab Section, alongside other international trade unions, gathered in Antwerp, Belgium, to discuss how Uber could be tackled on an international basis. The meeting was organised by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) from September 20-21st. This type of meeting is vital in our attempts to maintain standards and stop Uber’s ‘race to the bottom’.
Around 700 unions, representing more than 4.5 million transport workers from 150 countries, are members of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. Every part of the world is represented by the ITF and taxi drivers throughout the world have a say in the ITF. Unite have been leading a series of discussions with our international colleagues looking at how we can successfully challenge Uber and other app based private hire companies. We have met with New York, Belgium and French taxi drivers recently and in April we organised an international meeting, in conjunction with the ITF at Unite’s London Headquarters, with representatives from Canada, France and Belgium. It is through this dialogue and learning from each other’s experiences that will achieve success.
Unite’s address to the conference…
Unite the Union is the biggest trade union in Britain with 1.5 million members. The taxi section represents drivers throughout the country.
There are many local taxi associations around the country that makes organising taxi drivers collectively very difficult.
In Britain there is a two tier licensing system of taxi and private hire. Only taxis are allowed to ply for hire and in addition taxis can be pre-booked. Private hire can only be pre-booked through a licensed private hire operator. All taxi drivers and private hire drivers are self-employed.
Parliamentary laws and legislation govern how taxis and private hire operate within a local government framework able to set their own licensing regulations. This means that most towns and cities have different regulations, including the cost of the licensing. These licensing areas come under the control of elected local authorities of which there are 433.
Uber only operates a private hire service in Britain. Uber is licensed in approximately 25 towns and cities to run a private hire service. Recent de-regulatory legislation changes by the Conservative government allow Uber to legally operate in towns and cities that have refused Uber a licence by using licensed vehicles from neighbouring areas. In some areas such as Bristol Uber is licensed but have struggled to recruit drivers, so have brought in drivers and vehicles from other licensing areas.
There are over 350,000 licensed drivers in England, of which 75% are private hire drivers. In London there are over 110,000 private hire drivers and 24,000 taxi drivers. When Uber launched in London in June 2008 there were 55,000 private hire drivers, half of the present number, most of the new drivers have joined Uber giving Uber a workforce of approximately 40,000 drivers in London. Nationally Uber have about 80,000 drivers in Britain although it is difficult to get an exact figure.
Uber drivers are often from ethnic minority communities and Eastern Europe. They are overwhelmingly male, with poor levels of English and education. Many work part time and often earn below the national minimum wage.
Uber has clearly had a massive impact in Britain. It is particularly popular with young users, who didn’t use taxis before Uber was launched. It offers a cheap service which, although having an impact on taxi usage, has had a much bigger impact on the established private hire industry.
Unite’s priorities have been to lobby government to stop de-regulation, strengthen local licensing regulations and expose Uber’s exploitative and unsafe working practises and its tax avoidance.
Taxi drivers are angry at Uber’s licensing and there have been numerous demonstrations, which Unite working with allies has organised, against Uber throughout the country.
Taxi drivers have seen a reduction in earnings and largely blame this on Uber although it is difficult to assess the true impact of Uber on the taxi industry. There are also two successful taxi booking Apps in Britain that driver use that do counter Uber.
Uber has had the biggest impact on the existing private hire market with many Uber drivers leaving their existing operator to work for Uber, either full or part-time. This has led to the number of private hire operators falling by 15% in Britain since Uber started.
When Uber was launched the media promoted Uber in every way possible and were very uncritical. Recently there has been a noticeable change in the medias attitude as Uber’s exploitative and unsafe working practises have been exposed and the whole sharing economy is being questioned. The press are running more critical articles and are being far more positive about taxis although there are still many journalist friends of Uber’s.
The Conservative government has been very supportive of Uber since its launch. They have expressly spoken of the need for Uber to operate unhindered from tough regulations and have threatened to bring in their own soft touch regulations if local government is seen has being too tough on Uber. Unite has been working closely with many local policy makers to have a more robust regulatory framework. This is one of our key objectives.
Unite’s recent priority has been the successful election of a Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, in London to introduce stronger regulations, including a topographical test, tougher insurance requirements and an advanced driving test. Last week these measures along with others were announced by the Mayor as part of a London taxi action plan. Immediately Uber responded by emailing its users asking them to protest to the Mayor and have been to the courts to try to overturn some of the announcements.
Unite has built a number of allies with other taxi and private hire unions, associations and operators lobbing national and local governments, working with elected Mayors, members of the British Parliament and the European Parliament to ensure our message reaches the widest possible audience. We are also working with local government to seek agreement around a set of minimum standards for private hire including Uber.
Uber in Britain is still growing and although we can challenge Uber through better, stronger regulations, this is very piecemeal and not likely to stop Uber in Britain, although we are beginning to have an effect. The new right wing conservative government is not likely to hinder Uber’s growth and we believe the best way of stopping Uber is to elect a Labour government in 2020. But in the meantime we wish to learn lessons from other affiliates in their successes against Uber.
Article image shows Mike Hedges addressing the ITF Conference in Antwerp.