Monthly Archives: December 2016

Product Placement

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Product Placement

The downturn in trade over the last few years should have made us more commercially aware, leading us to consider how to run our businesses more efficiently.  We now have at our disposal new ways of finding work, and new payment methods to utilise.  But, we need to keep on our guard for those who could benefit at our cost.  I now believe our licensing body did us a favour by forcing us to take credit cards, but by being so prescriptive, they’ve pushed us into commercial deals with providers of the necessary equipment.  Drivers have also realised that they’ve been forced into advertising, for which we receive no benefits.

Several weeks’ ago I received a mysterious cardboard package through the post. It was from TfL, and contained various stickers and instructions on their use.  I dutifully placed the stickers in the prescribed positions and thought no more about it.  In the days and weeks that followed I heard drivers complaining about one particular sticker that we display on the partition behind our heads.  It invites passengers to contact TfL should there be “any issues with paying”.  There is already information on the fare table detailing how to complain, so this appears superfluous.  Maybe there’s a touch of paranoia here, but this large sticker seems to be encouraging more complaints.  Maybe it was a shot across the bows to any remaining members of the plastic bag brigade; but the sign could also have warned passengers that we could complain about them should they abuse us or refuse to pay.  Or if they want to complain about the Cycle Superhighway.

Drivers also mentioned the three stickers we have displaying symbols of certain credit cards we can accept.  Not all the cards we can accept are indicated on the stickers, so how were the four lucky companies chosen?  Had they paid TfL to advertise?  The next obvious question was:  shouldn’t they be paying me for displaying the advertisement?!   We seem to have unwittingly taken part in a product placement promotion!   But we were never asked if we wanted to take part, and we receive no remuneration.  Buses don’t carry advertisements for free: no-one does.

Some drivers choose to have advertising stickers covering the doors, or an all-over wrap.  Advertising doesn’t always look nice, but it’s always been our decision.  I don’t think the old Public Carriage Office would’ve approved those preposterous illuminated roof advertising boards, but TfL are fine with it; possibly because they charge drivers extra money for their annual inspection.

Before TfL took over taxi licensing, we were governed by the Metropolitan Police Public Carriage Office.  The PCO could be bloody awkward, but there was a grudging respect for them as we knew they were helping to maintain London’s position as the best taxi service in the world.  You knew that if you stepped out of line you’d be in big trouble, so most drivers didn’t step out of line (complaints received at modern-day TfL still largely involve those with previous).

The PCO were stringent, but didn’t involve themselves too much in how we run our businesses.  TfL have become increasingly prescriptive as to how we operate.  It’s good that we are now known to accept credit cards, but they’ve been over-prescriptive and unreasonable over the equipment we use and where we position it:  for instance, where they forced many of us who had taken cards for years to have our card reader installed in the passenger compartment.  And then there were the stickers.

It’s not a huge issue, but we should have been asked first.  We sometimes feel that we are there to be exploited when it suits TfL.  Taxi imagery was used to promote London during the Olympics, but we were quickly side-lined as flash new cars were brought in to convey VIPs around London.  We weren’t wanted, so were barred from using the special Olympic fast-track lanes.  The lanes remained empty most of the time, while everyone else sat in queues admiring the scenery.  Ironically, the Olympic lanes were later converted into cycle lanes, with the same drastic consequences on traffic.

I never had any trouble with the PCO – even though I too was scared to take my own cab down for its annual inspection.  I’ve not had any trouble with TfL either, but many older drivers would prefer to be licensed by the PCO.  This is partly because the PCO licensed taxis and not private hire.  If our licensing authority licenses both taxis and PH it needs to be scrupulously fair and transparent.  TfL have a difficult job, but they have managed to alienate both parties.  Taxi and PH drivers have both been let down by TfL’s licensing of a foreign-based tech company as a PH operator, and both parties are dismayed at the issuing of so many PH licences.  Private Hire drivers are now upset over new regulations over topographical testing, English language proficiency, and buying and displaying proper insurance.  Taxi drivers are unhappy that not enough is done to clear touts from the streets.  There have been improvements here, but if PH licences are issued by the hundred every week, so should the appointment of enforcement officers.  Selling PH licences is a money-spinner for TfL and its done untold harm to both industries.  Older cabbies might not be aware that those on the Knowledge are now charged for the privilege too.

I‘m thinking of putting stickers on tube trains to advertise my unwanted CDs.  Do you think I should ask TfL first?

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Meet the New Boss

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Meet the New Boss

I was surprised by the recent Employment Tribunal ruling that Uber drivers aren’t self-employed mini-cab drivers, but employees of a foreign tech company.

As expected, Uber have vowed to appeal, so the champagne is still on hold; but if the judgment stands, it’s a welcome announcement for us as their business model goes out the window and it puts the Uber organisation in disarray.  Uber’s “Partners” will become employees and will start to enjoy rights that they’ve hitherto only dreamt about.  As far as I understand it, these new employees will now be entitled to a minimum wage, and Uber will have to sort out income tax and national insurance for their new employees.  They’ll have to pay holiday and sick pay, maternity and paternity leave, pensions, and all the other benefits that employees enjoy under law.  This will cost Uber a lot of time, effort, and money.

The Uber drivers who brought the case should’ve have been more careful for what they wished for.  Being an employee gives you a degree of security, but it comes at a price.  When we start driving a taxi as a self-employed trader we need to put money away for our six-monthly tax bill.  We don’t pay a lot of tax because our running costs are offset against our earnings.  We pay little National Insurance.  We should put money away for holidays, sick days, and a pension, but it’s optional:  if we have a lean Kipper Season we can defer it.  No chance of doing that when your wages are deducted automatically.  Our main concern is keeping the cab on the road.  Hopefully, we make a profit, and all our other expenses are taken care of.  When I became employed as a Knowledge Examiner I was shocked at how much I was deducted:  several hundred pounds of tax and National Insurance every month!  It was nice to be in a pension scheme, but that was another £100-plus every month.  Every job that Uber drivers do will be logged and deductions will be made accordingly.  They might reflect that they were better off when they were self-employed.  There isn’t really any extra security being an employee, as an employee can be dismissed within two years and with no reason given.  I’d suggest that only a minority of Uber drivers stay longer than two years anyway.  Employees will be entitled to a minimum wage, but this won’t be enough to live on.  If not enough work is offered and accepted, drivers will be in a sticky situation.  Particularly if you are renting a car or buying one on finance.  As far as I know, you can’t claim vehicle costs unless you are self-employed.

Going further, if Uber drivers become employees, could their bosses force them to sign contracts stipulating hours of work?  Will some drivers be on the nine-to-five with an hour for lunch, while others are on unsociable hours, including weekends and bank holidays?  Some drivers could be allocated too few hours, some too many.  Taking time off might not be so easy – maybe the boss will need to consult the rota first.  They’ll probably have to work a month before seeing their first pay packet.  The main benefit of being a private hire driver is the flexibility of being your own boss, but that flexibility has now been signed away.  Think how we’d take to having a boss to answer to, and being told when to work.

Uber will now be responsible for their drivers’ conduct.  When drivers are complained about it won’t be enough to disassociate themselves with the claim that Uber are a tech company and have nothing to do with the person driving the car brokered through their App.

Fares are sure to rise, making Uber less attractive.  At the same time, word is getting around that all London taxis now accept contactless credit cards, and that many of us are also bookable through apps and radio circuits – as many of us have been for years.

Things are getting tough for Uber.  They cleverly found a loophole in centuries-old legislation and caught our licensing body napping.  They were initially seen as progressive, and feted by celebrities who wanted to align themselves with something new and exciting.  They were seen as the People’s Cab, but bad publicity has caught up with them.  People are now asking whether their aggressive way of doing things is something they should endorse.  They’re suffering attacks from both left and right wing groups, and they’re fighting a war on too many fronts.

Driver morale is low, and I believe it will get lower still.  A report by the United Private Hire Drivers speaks of exploitation, with drivers working 90 hours a week just to make ends meet.  The group say things won’t get better while TfL continue to flood London with licences:  111,000 and rising.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Uber’s licence is up for renewal next year.  They see London as a honey pot, but their feet are getting stuck right now.  That’s sweet.


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