Tag Archives: Uber

More About Uber…

(original edit of my article for Taxi magazine).

Know Your Enemy

In order to combat Uber, we first need to understand why people use them.  After talking to friends about their transport use recently, I came away with a better understanding of the appeal of our competitors.

My research was undertaken at the Upminster TapRoom on a Saturday evening.  In the streets outside there was a sea of yellow lights.  The phrase: “It’s like Piccadilly Circus”, was apt.  This is a suburban yellow badge area, but where many green badge drivers also live.  Judging by the high number of empty cabs, it appeared to be an area where the cab trade are finding it hard going.

The two friends I spoke to admire the taxi trade, but more often than not, use Uber to get around.  My Upminster friend can clearly find a cab straight away, so there’s no problem with supply.  The only issue is cost when he needs to take a longer than average journey.  He spoke of wanting to get home one night from Liverpool Street.  He took an Uber as it only cost £30.  He asked how much it would’ve cost in my cab.  I said at least £70, but thinking about it later, it would be considerably more than that.  How can they do it that cheaply?  It must take the best part of an hour to get there; and when you factor in returning empty to the City, you’re talking £15 an hour.  When Uber have taken their commission, it doesn’t leave the driver with much.

We all know drivers are lured in with ludicrous claims of high earnings.  Driver dissatisfaction in the private hire sector has been well publicised, but Uber still manage to offer up an impressive brigade of drivers.  Uber pride themselves on supplying car within three minutes, and my friend confirms they turn up quickly.

It all works by over-supply.   It doesn’t matter to Uber if they have thousands of drivers parked up doing nothing.  It only affects the drivers.  The customer wants a car within three minutes, and Uber can arrange it.  Driver turnover is high, with new arrivals coming to take the place of those who have left disillusioned.  There’s always someone there to drive you to Essex for a pittance.

London is saturated by private hire.  I’ve heard colleagues complain there are too many taxis too.  But the number of taxi licences has hardly gone up in several decades.  There aren’t too many cabs, it’s that the drivers are staying out longer to make their money up, or are working extra days (weekend work has plummeted over the last year or two).  Taxi numbers are only kept down because of The Knowledge.   Imagine if it was as easy to get a taxi licence as a private hire licence.  If we over-supplied there would be a public enquiry.  Imagine the rank space we’d need if our numbers were going up by several hundred every week like the minis.  Never mind the unofficial Paddington rank starting at the Metropole; cabs would be queuing from Marble Arch.  The public don’t notice the mini-cabs parked up, or circuiting around.  London private hire cars don’t display a PH plate:  they display a virtually unreadable licence sticker, further disguised by the tinted windows that taxis aren’t allowed to have.

The over- supply of PH licences means Uber can cover all of Central London, the suburbs, the airports, and any other town they fancy – current hotspots for London licensed Uber seem to be Southend and Brighton.  Not every booked Uber car will turn up, and not every driver will know where they’re going.  The driver might be funny about guide dogs, or gays; or he might throw you out if you criticise his choice of route (or his sat nav’s).  Thirty quid all the way to Upminster though  – the customer will take the risk and pocket a sizeable saving!

I reminded my friend that many of our drivers now use hailing apps, and he could book a taxi the same way as an Uber car.  He knows that, but says it’s not that well publicised.

People now know about Uber’s tax avoidance.  They know their drivers are being exploited.  They have heard the term Uberisation, used to describe the gig economy, zero hours contracts, and the sham of self-employed status.  We queue for work on actual ranks, but things are even worse on the virtual rank that the PH and zero-hours contractors are on.

The thing is, the bottom line is all that matters to many people.  I’m no better.  I use companies that dodge UK tax and treat their employees – or self-employed “partners” – abominably.  I know I shouldn’t; but the price, convenience, and delivery times, overrides my conscience.

Ever since private hire started, the two services have appealed to a different clientele.  Some people only use a mini-cab, some only use a taxi.  There’s a floating middle, who use both.  We’ll probably never win the custom of those who just look at the bottom line, but we could win over the middle ground.  In the years when things were better we lost some of the middle ground while chasing the top end.  The only way we can compete now is to appeal to everyone.  We now all take credit cards, and our apps are getting known.  We must provide a quality service at all times.  We need to consider fixed price fares on occasions.  A century or so ago, we appealed to the gentry because a gentleman could get into our cabs without taking his top hat off.  In order to wear the trousers, we have to remember that gentlemen no longer wear top hats.

 

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Taking Stock

(My edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

Taking Stock

Late last year the subject of cryonics came up.  This is where you have your body frozen in the hope that you can be brought back to life at a later date.  With the Kipper Season biting, now might be a good time to be cryogenically frozen.  When might I like to be thawed out?  Should I hang around until I can see West Ham win the Champions League?  When Uber are run out of town?  Or for just long enough to see trade improve?

I expect the process is more involved than freezing a pack of chicken legs though.  Freezing humans sounds weird and scary; something from science fiction – maybe as fictional as West Ham winning the Champions League – yet, a few years’ ago the idea that all London taxis would accept credit cards sounded like science fiction.  A year ago I believe only about 40% of us took cards, so it was a rapid turnaround, and a rapid change in cab culture.  Many things happened in the trade last year, and towards the end of the year we had several reasons to be cheerful going into 2017.

The word is getting round that we all take credit cards, and I’m sure this will result in more business.  We are also being granted more rank space.  I didn’t use ranks much in the past, but I’ve found them useful over the last couple of years when I’ve bored of driving around burning diesel.  I’m excited about the prospect of greater access to bus lanes.  I hear we’ll be able to follow the buses across the westbound slip to the left of Euston Underpass.  This will prove invaluable when the underpass is jammed; as it is most of the day since Tavistock Place westbound was closed to us.  I’m not sure whether it might happen, but wouldn’t it be great if we could turn right from the Strand directly on to Waterloo Bridge like the buses?  Or make the right from Bloomsbury Street into New Oxford Street.  I believe worsening traffic poses more of a threat than an increase in PH licences, as it puts potential customers off.  Just getting access to short stretches of extra bus lanes is a step in the right direction.

I think we generally have the support of the new Mayor.  He’s not going to give us everything we want, but I think he’ll treat us with fairness.

New Private Hire rules are being brought in that will protect the public and make things fairer for us.  Some elements within Private Hire are up in arms, but the new regulations are only what the public could reasonably expect as a matter of course.  Every PH customer should expect their driver to be able to understand English and have proper insurance on display.  Customers should expect operators to have a base in London and be easily contactable should they have queries or any complaints.  Many of the reforms are supported by the traditional PH companies, and many PH drivers also support a cap on PH licence numbers.  TfL need to get their finger out on this one.  They complain that they need parliamentary approval, yet they capped Suburban taxi licences easily enough.

It’s interesting to see that the taxi and PH groups find themselves in agreement on many issues:  it’s mostly Uber who are complaining.  The Mayor is “disappointed” that Uber are fighting reforms.  I expect TfL are disappointed too.  Talk about biting the hand that feeds!   TfL licensed a tech company as a mini-cab operator, knowing that it had no contact phone number, was going to use a mobile phone as a meter, ply for immediate hire, and would pay tax abroad.  If Uber are only supplying the App, as they claim, how could they ever be licensed as a London Private Hire operator?  I bet TfL regret rolling over so easily now Uber are taking them to court over the new regulations.

There was more bad news for Uber when their drivers were ruled to be employees rather than self-employed.  This could be catastrophic for Uber, as will have to treat their drivers to holiday and sick pay, maternity & paternity leave, and pensions.  Maybe they will also have to collect tax and National Insurance from them too.  Uber are appealing this one too.  They’re certainly spending a lot of time, money and effort on legal disputes.  They obviously think control of London is worth fighting for, but if the employment status ruling holds they’ll be well on the back foot this year.  Imagine every Uber driver demanding backdated holiday pay!  Their fares are sure to rise making them less attractive, and many of their drivers will struggle to pay huge increases in income tax and national insurance.

Cab drivers have become more commercially astute over the last few years of famine, uncertainty, and rapid technological changes.  We’ve been forced to think more about ways to get business, and to research new opportunities.  There are various Apps available, to compliment the more traditional radio circuits.  We have all, or at least, most bases covered.  This wasn’t the case in the past.  We’ve upped our game in the face of new, rapacious and unfair, competition.  We need to stay organised and united as we take the fight into the New Year.

So, I think I’ll arrange to be de-frosted in the Spring of 2018 and see how things are.  If I can still smell the kippers would someone just pour some more ice cubes over me?

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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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Ubermarket Sweep

(Article written for Taxi magazine. The editor suggested I needed to lie down, though I think it’s quite jolly in places).

Ubermarket Sweep

You’ve probably noticed people riding around on Uber delivery bikes. Our favourite app-based technology company have opened a new front in the transport war and are taking on courier companies like Deliveroo. That’s all we need: more mirror-worrying scooters with huge boxes scraping down the cycle lane. A perfect complement to their cars holding you up by picking up passengers in the middle of the road and doing a three-point turn.
UberEats collect food from restaurants that don’t provide a delivery service and deliver it to your home or office. Cyclists and motorcyclists are drawn in with a £100 sign-on payment, and are apparently paid an equivalent of £10 per hour. Of course, Uber’s mini-cab drivers were similarly tempted in by golden hellos, but the gold turned to rust when their earnings plummeted. Ah well, it’s their choice.
Uber also experimented with a grocery service in Washington DC. They would deliver household essentials to your door at a competitive price and with no delivery charge. Amazon started a same-day “fresh produce and groceries” delivery service in California and Seattle, and have recently launched the service in England, supplying meat, fish, dairy products, and many other items. Sadly, when I tapped my Bedfordshire postcode in I learned that I’d have to go without my brace of pheasant today, as delivery is currently only available in certain postcodes in North and East London (Hipsters in other words. Yes, craft beer is also available).
This is in addition to the existing supermarket deliveries. We’re now living in a world where people expect everything to be delivered, and delivered promptly. I get to see many towns and cities on my travels, and I’ve watched our High Streets decline as the computer and smart phone has replaced the shopping experience. Big, established, names from my childhood, have gone: Woolworths and C&A closed years’ ago; to be recently been joined by BHS – a shop sold for £1, then valued at nothing.
People like Boris said people needed choice, and to object to Uber was to object to progress – never mind that private hire and taxi trades are distinct services, and ours is much more stringently regulated. You were anti-competition if you spoke up against an unfair playing field on which Uber played. When Uber, Amazon, and the rest, take over our High Streets and our few remaining greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers close; can we then say it’s because they were anti-progress and resistant to change?
Thankfully, the debate over cab drivers taking credit cards is now virtually redundant. Those drivers who resisted were labelled luddites Luddite if you were resistant to accepting cards. They were dinosaurs sleepwalking into their own extinction. I’d always countered that you’d only use cards to pay for certain items, and that you wouldn’t use one to pay for a pound of apples or a newspaper. I’m now thinking that maybe people do. People are certainly encouraged to pay for their coffee by card at certain places.
Presumably I’m a dinosaur if I want to conserve the physical shopping experience of walking down to the shops, to browse, touch and physically compare items – and to check the sell by dates on fresh produce.
The whole delivery thing has a sinister side. The independent businesses that I support would be hounded by the HMRC should they get their tax returns wrong, yet companies delivering stuff may well be brokering deals to discount their tax bills, or be paying their tax abroad. Are you against competition and progress if you don’t try to make deals to pay less tax?
Do the self-employed “partners” working on behalf of these delivery companies actually earn enough, or are they encouraged to claim tax credits? Are their scooters insured for business use?
Maybe Uber have gone as far as they can go with taxis in London, and that’s why they’ve started on couriers. The businesses that don’t take part in any of these delivery schemes will risk being eaten away. I would fully expect Uber and other companies to set up their own retail businesses, if they haven’t already – these things usually start off in the USA. They’ve waged war on taxi drivers, traditional private hire, couriers; and now butchers, fish mongers and greengrocers are at risk. They’re trying to take over the world! The Government, TfL, businesses, and those people who can’t be bothered to do their own shopping, are all letting it happen. They say it’s in the name of progress. Maybe it is. What do I know? I’m just a dinosaur.

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Mind Your Language

(Original edit of latest article for Taxi magazine. The version in this week’s mag has been “toughened up” by the editor, and is a lot different).

Mind Your Language

I fear I might have been too sympathetic to the plight of our private hire friends recently. I hit out at operators lowering their fares and hiking up company commission; and I generally supported the drivers’ industrial action against exploitation. Only a few weeks’ later my sympathy wilted when I read they were getting into a tizz over TfLs tightening of licensing requirements.
One complaint is that they have to buy and display proper insurance certificates. August’s PHC magazine looks at TfLs “controversial” decision and asks why PH drivers should carry Hire & Reward insurance even when they are not carrying passengers. It seems many PH drivers resent paying out for insurance when they are on holiday, or when they are not using their school run vehicles over the summer holidays. Steve Wright, Chairman of the Licensed Private Hire Car Association, calls the insurance issue “discriminatory” and “massively unfair.” My first reaction was that business must be good if drivers can take a month or two off to visit relatives in other parts of the world, or enjoy twelve weeks’ off by working to the school timetable.
But it’s reasonable for drivers to make extended visits to their homelands, and I don’t doubt that they put the hours in for the larger part of the year. The insurance issue is blamed on a taxi trade tantrum. The taxi trade undoubtedly brought the issue to attention, after shock at discovering that continuous Hire & Reward insurance for private hire drivers wasn’t already law, and that PH drivers could turn insurance off and on before the new legislation came in. There are plenty of part-time taxi drivers, and plenty who spend long periods abroad visiting relatives. Can drivers claim an insurance rebate for their fortnight in Spain? Similarly, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suspend your road fund licence, breakdown cover, or residents’ parking permits, for a short period. Theoretically, no-one should need Hire & Reward insurance when we’re not carrying passengers. This could include when we’re driving in and out of our licensing area if we live outside London, and when we’re cruising for work or on ranks. I understand the desire for flexibility, but car insurance isn’t something that you can opt in and out of. If insurance becomes flexible, you get into many grey areas, and it becomes more open to abuse. It would be an administrative nightmare, and would most likely start to cost more. PH drivers can make savings elsewhere: apart from the vehicle itself, they save £200 a year by using their phone as a meter.
PHC’s feature warns that drivers will be antagonised and may break the rules. If PH cars had to display their insurance like we do, it would be easier for Compliance Officers or the Police to check they’re operating safely and legally. Maybe this is what some are afraid of; that when they sit outside St Pancras or on their unofficial ranks, they are on offer to the authorities.
In the age of computers, anyone can knock up a genuine-looking insurance certificate, and send a photocopy to a PH operator. Alternatively, you could genuinely take out Hire and Reward insurance, then cancel it once the certificate’s been checked. You could then take out a cheaper leisure-use policy, or just carry on with nothing and hope for the best. I’m not sure if these practices are widespread, but it’s certainly been done.
Dodgy documents are best produced by criminals who have a grasp of English. TfL will soon be testing PH applicants’ understanding of English, and this is another objection we’ve heard recently. I don’t think a driver’s English has to be perfect, but it should be good enough to discuss destinations and routes. This is reasonable and the minimum that the public should expect. In the language issue it’s not just the drivers’ grasp of English we need to think about, it’s also the customers. Often, a foreigner’s use of English is better than a native speaker. We’ve all come across folk born and bred on these shores to whisper, mumble, and slur; and miss-pronounce words out of all proportion. We have to deal with a lot of strange accents, British and foreign. I consider myself to have a good grasp of English, but I can’t understand everybody. An English test will help though, as it’ll give drivers a fighting chance of understanding most people, particularly when customers mumble about a changed destination half way through a journey.
From October, PH operators have to provide TfL with their drivers’ photos and National Insurance number. Again, I presumed this was being done anyway. It sounds to me that things have been very slack since PH was officially licensed, and the drivers and operators have got used to doing what they want. This isn’t the fault of private hire; it’s the fault of the licencing authority that’s let standards slip. Now, when they decide to raise standards and protect the public; it’s too much of a shock to the system. The private hire industry provides a flexible way of making a living. The taxi trade is more highly regulated, but in essence it’s just as flexible. We’re talking about standards and public safety here, and flexibility can only go so far.

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Uber Threaten Buses

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Busman’s Holiday
At this year’s UK Bus Summit, TfL Managing Director of Surface Transport, Leon Daniels, warned that London’s buses are under threat by Uber. I found the idea unlikely at first, but the dynamic of transport is certainly changing. Could low mini-cab fares really herald the decline of the bus?
What’s certain is a race to the bottom between private hire operators, and with buses being the cheapest form of transport in London, they could prove to be the most vulnerable should private hire fares become cheaper. Transport users in London are familiar with the long line of red on Regent Street and Oxford Street, and they know they’re in for a long journey should they choose the bus option.
Transport users know a taxi can be an expensive option, but we’re popular because we offer a private door-to-door service, and we’re quicker than the buses. Regular customers also know we are increasingly prone to get stuck in traffic though, and if we get caught in heavy traffic, a £15 fare can easily become £20 or £25, or even £30. And there’s no definitive rush hour; we can get stuck in traffic at any part of the day – and on any day too; weekends aren’t exempt.
Tourists like to ride in a cab, and we’re useful to people with luggage using train stations. Taxis also serve the huge Taxicard account for customers with limited mobility, subsidised by the London boroughs. Apart from that, we’re largely used by those with a bit of money. Not so well off people might use us for a quick dash to Euston or Waterloo, but it’s a gamble. People are wary because of the possible cost implications.
Private hire gained a measure of respectability when they became officially licensed, and the smart corporate image of some of the companies has attracted higher-earning individuals, as well as corporate account customers. Uber’s use of the app. is nothing new, but few people seem to be aware that new technology is available to book a taxi. Computer dispatch and phone applications have been used by the London taxi trade since they first became available. There’s some good publicity coming out to publicise alternative ways to hail a taxi, and it’s positive that all taxis will be known to process credit cards from October.
Although trade is still depressed, I’m confident that our position will strengthen. Established private hire companies are surely having it harder than us, and if Uber cuts its fares, other private hire companies will have to follow or risk going to the wall. I can see private hire being in the hands of just a few mega-companies before long. How low can the fares go? Low enough to challenge the buses?
Mr Daniels seems to think so, when he reminded the busmen that their opposition offer a personal, door to door service, and that private hire can work out cheaper than the bus if there are more than one of you travelling. The taxi trade has had advertising campaigns pointing out that any cab fare applies to the whole vehicle: five or six passengers. Not everyone considers this, so it’s useful to point it out. If there are a few of you, taking a taxi to Heathrow is cheaper than taking a train, particularly when you have to get yourself to Paddington first. Even a cab ride to Gatwick, Luton, or Stansted, can be cost effective.
So what if private hire targeted the buses and took more work from them? What if the bus companies didn’t find it economical to run to current timetables and cut some buses? Waiting times between buses would increase, and private hire (and taxis) would become more attractive. Passengers fed up of waiting for a bus will increasingly reach for their mobile to book an Uber, or flag down a passing taxi. Yes, what benefits Uber could benefit taxis too. Road congestion would be lessened on many routes, benefitting everybody. The reduced bus fleet will cause less congestion, and minis and taxis will be moving around faster. Imagine no more queuing to get around Trafalgar Square or Piccadilly Circus! The cleaner air will also keep everyone happy.
Uber Alles
Through their publicity machine, everyone has heard of Uber. Everyone knows they can download their app. and have a car arrive after a few minutes. It’s also a global brand, so there’s a certain element of trust. If successful, they could challenge the Heathrow and Gatwick Express trains, and maybe have a pop at the Oxford Tube too for good measure. With their power, will Uber get permission to take Oyster cards? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Their fares will surely have to get even lower though. I don’t think drivers’ disputes over Uber’s commission will bother customers so much. The fact is that people just want a cheap service, and Uber, and private hire generally, is seen as a relatively inexpensive option.
But they are a fashionable brand, and fashions come and go. As a fashionable brand, Uber are reliant on a sympathetic media to promote them, and also on celebrity endorsement. Publicity over Uber’s tax arrangements make people with a conscience think twice; as well as reports on some drivers’ criminal activities, insurance irregularities, and unorthodox route planning. Should the glamour wear off, they haven’t the history or tradition to sustain a fickle London public’s interest. The tide could turn against them. If they do establish themselves as a serious challenge to the buses they might be tempted to put up fares again, and to increase their surge pricing periods. We could all go back to square one again. Then what? Who knows!
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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British Steel

(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.

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