Today, will be the first time I’ve ever been part of a strike and I must admit I have mixed feelings. I’d prefer to be out at work earning a living and getting on with my life but recently I came to realise that something needs to be done and I need to be part of the solution.
Uber says we drivers have amazing freedom and flexibility, but the reality is I am working 70 to 80 hours a week because that is what the economics of the job dictates. Due to the high operating costs for my car and the ridiculously low fares offered by Uber, I work on average 30 hours per week just to break even. For a while I thought I just wasn’t doing the job properly but then I read the judgement in favour of drivers at Uber’s rival Addison Lee and I noticed it was the same story there.
As if the long hours and low pay wasn’t bad enough, Uber have begun to put a lot of pressure on drivers and if you don’t go along with programme you quickly find yourself temporarily or permanently ‘deactivated’, which is just another word for being fired. There are two main reasons why Uber is getting tough on drivers.
First, since Uber nearly lost its license earlier this year, it is under huge pressure to prove to regulators that it is policing the platform. At the Magistrates Court in June Uber staff said on the stand that drivers would never again get the benefit of the doubt and they have been as good as their word on this. Now, any petty complaint at all is likely to result in a driver being deactivated and many I know live in constant fear of this. The trouble is a small number of passengers do make false or exaggerated complaints because Uber has had a habit of offering them a discount on the fare which is usually deducted from the driver’s account without even asking us. Often drivers are not told why they are being deactivated because, since we have no rights, we can be deactivated for any or no reason at all so Uber just don’t want to waste their time explaining the decision nor entertaining an appeal. There are plenty more people out there to replace you.
The other reason for Uber’s pressuring of drivers is that the competitive market in London is heating up with new rivals appearing on the scene. Now, if we cancel too many jobs in Zone 1 and 2 in London we can be suspended because Uber wants to make sure their response time to customers is the best. For some drivers, suspension and reactivation has become a weekly routine. They get suspended on a Tuesday and must travel to the office in London’s docklands and be reactivated again on the Friday.
There are many legitimate reasons why a driver might need to cancel a job. For example, Uber expects us to wait for 8 minutes for a passenger at the pick-up point. In many areas of central London this just isn’t possible without risking getting a penalty charge notice after being caught on enforcement camera. Another reason why drivers might want to cancel jobs is when Uber offer us lower fares when we are in a zone where higher surge fares are being offered. Uber wants to have the market place freedom to offer variable pricing to consumers but then restricts our freedom to refuse work at lower fares. In fact, we must blindly accept all jobs without knowing first where the destination is and how much the job is worth. And still Uber insists I am my own boss but how can I be when I am managed so closely and forced to accept work even if it is unprofitable?
Pricing of fares is the biggest issue of all and here we are not competing with black taxis and local minicab offices, we are competing against the bus and tube. How can it be right for TfL to unconditionally license a high-volume minicab operator like Uber in London just to drain passengers and revenue away from public transport just to create grinding congestion everywhere?. Everyone loses out except Uber investors who hope to cash in an IPO next year. The dirty little secret is this: despite all Uber’s talk about the wonder of technology, the company’s value has been built on the exploitation of the working poor all over the world.
So today, I am working with drivers at grassroots level to organise from the ground up. We’re tired of waiting for central government or the Mayor or the courts to come and help us. In working with the IWGB union, we drivers are taking matters into our hands to take strike action. I have no illusions about how difficult it will be for us to force Uber to be fair to workers like me. Today is just the beginning.