(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).
British Steel (original title)
I’m sure many of you have been following the story of the British steel industry with sadness. This once proud industry is struggling to survive because it cannot compete with a flood of cheap state-subsidised steel from China, high export tariffs, high energy costs, and green taxes. While most people are sad to see long-established industries declining, some unfairly characterise the situation as a struggle between free market progress and industries stuck in the past.
I’m starting to think the cab trade is in a similar position. As an analogy, we are the Port Talbot steel workers struggling to compete with foreign companies on an uneven playing field. It’s not a level playing field when less stringent conditions abroad allow the domestic product to be undercut. Foreign suppliers don’t operate under the strict health and safety laws conditions that domestic industries do: the factories are less safe, the workers less protected; and I’d be surprised if the goods were transported by vehicles that would pass a British MOT.
There’s also an almost unlimited supply of labour. In private hire there’s a revolving door, through which drivers can be recruited both domestically and from abroad. Modern-day slave masters tempt people in with unrealistic claims of high earnings, and encourage them to top up their money with benefits. Not many private hire drivers stay around for long when they realise they’re being exploited, and when they leave the trade, they are quickly replaced by new drivers operating under TfL’s open door licensing policy.
In the cab trade, if a driver can’t make his business work and drops out, there is no-one to take his place. On the face of it, that means more work for the rest of us; but as a trade we’re diminished. With fewer of us, we have less power. The number of taxis hasn’t gone up much in the last few decades, but the number of private hire vehicles has multiplied – and continues to do so by several hundred every week. The taxi and private hire industries have co-existed side by side for a long time now. Traditional private hire are also threatened by foreign app-based providers, and the two industries often find themselves in agreement. Many established private hire companies support the clarification and enforcement of rules, as well as the capping of numbers. TfL say they can’t legally suspend private hire licensing, yet they suspended issuing taxi licences in certain suburban sectors a few years’ ago.
Foreign app-based private hire operators do nothing for this country when most of their tax is paid abroad, and some of its drivers are claiming benefits. I was bored by the media’s fascination with Mr Cameron’s investments and tax affairs, but it’s interesting how he seems to support a company that makes a lot of money in this country while avoiding paying tax here. Many drivers are working long hours at subsistence levels, and it does nobody any good. It’s understandable that customers go for the cheapest option, but in this case it’s only cheap because profits go to a tax-dodging company who pays its drivers a pittance. I believe the public are becoming wiser to their operations now. There have been well-publicised instances of criminal activity by app-based private hire drivers, and there is always doubt over insurance. Many people have been enraged by surge pricing and have had money taken from their credit cards without their knowledge. Some of the drivers’ route planning has been the stuff of legend.
The steel industry seems to have had inadequate protection from the government, and the cab trade enjoys little protection from our licensing body. A Britain without a steel industry is unthinkable. A London without a cab industry is also unthinkable. As I write, the future of steel is being discussed on the world stage. The cab trade could be improved locally, here in London. Plying for hire needs clarifying and enforcing, private hire licensing needs to be suspended, and we need a serious look at the road systems that are slowing down the traffic and killing people with the resulting pollution. One hope is that a sensible, fair-minded, mayor could bring in positive changes and re-form taxi and private hire licensing. Someone certainly needs to bring in some British steel.
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.