NEWS

Uber Drivers Reveal Their 'Heartache' Over Licensing Decision

‘They trapped us so badly.’

22/09/2017 17:36 SAST | Updated 25/09/2017 15:00 SAST
Toby Melville / Reuters
Uber lost its licence to operate in London on Friday

Sayed Khalil has a “very heavy heart” today and “really doesn’t know what to do” in the wake of a decision by Transport for London (Tfl) to end Uber’s operating licence.

But most probably he’ll continue working for the company out of a Stockholm syndrome-like reliance, because the father-of-four feels he has no other options left.

Uber lost its licence Friday because Tfl concluded it is “not fit and proper to hold” one, something its 40,000 drivers have been saying for some time. Other claims levelled against the troubled company include alleged sexual assault by drivers.

Uber will now no longer be able to offer services in their current form within the M25 from 30 September. However, it can continue to operate during an appeals process, which it has confirmed it will lodge, meaning the future of the company’s London operations remain uncertain. 

Khalil, 39, has spent four years driving for Uber, having left Addison Lee for what he thought was a more lucrative job. And it was, “initially”, for the first year and a half, “no regrets.... but then they trapped us so badly”. 

As Brits became more familiar with the app - Uber says its used by 3.5 million Londoners - it began recruiting more drivers to improve the level of service, which had a two-fold effect.

More drivers meant less, and smaller fares for cabbies, and changed social behaviours, with customers taking a dating-app mentality to catching one. 

“People used to wait 15-20 minutes for a cab, now they will cancel it if it is more than two minutes... there’s just too many people (drivers).

But I don’t blame the customers. But we still need to eat. If we don’t have a job for one hour it costs Uber nothing. If we don’t have a job for 10 hours it costs Uber nothing. They could have 400,000 drivers all doing nothing. It wouldn’t cost them anything. They were exploiting us and they never stopped recruiting the whole time.”

During the last few years Khalil has had to double his hours to make the same amount of money he made when he joined - some times even less - taking home “less than minimum wage... £4-£5 an hour” once Uber fees are deducted. Forty hour weeks became 70, 80, 90 hour weeks and Khalil says he “probably now makes less than before (when he was at another mini cab firm).”

The strain, Khalil says, in part led to the break down of his relationship: “I blame Uber, I was always, always so stressed... it was a factor.” And he rarely sees his children, who vary in age between two and eight and live with their mother: “I just never get to see them.”

Friday’s decision has left Khalil devastated and angry. He wishes they “sorted out drivers’ right a long time ago”, but he also feels trapped and hopes Uber can overturn Tfl’s decision so he can continue driving for them.

Uber’s aggressive take-over of taxi services “killed off all the competition”, and left “few other options around”, Khalil says. His vehicle is also now eight years old and he fears it may not be new enough to use at other taxi companies. Regardless, every month for the next year, he will have to pay £361 for it, until his five-year contract is up. 

But it is worse for other drivers, Khalil says, who were lured into the company with what he claims are “bogus advertisements” promising them earnings that they’d never be able to achieve: “Really nice people, who are desperate for a job... who have just got into the country... and now they’re trapped.” 

Dennis Bartholomew, who was recently elected as a joint representative of GMB Professional Drivers working for Uber, accused the company of “shady practices that would put Bernie Madoff to shame”. 

He said Tfl’s decision, in the short-term, is “very bad for drivers”, but prophesied that in time the gap Uber may leave would be plugged by “other countries that will see the UK as a lucrative market and hopefully these companies will come in and play by the rules, by the law”.

Bartholomew, who has driven for Uber for two years, says being at the wheel is “quite pleasant”, but dealing with his employer is the opposite. 

In terms of engaging with Uber as a driver, it’s near impossible. They hardly ever speak to the individual drivers although they do have something they call a round table, which I’ve attended, but no notice is taken of that unless it’s something the company itself wants.”

Practically speaking, in the short-term, Bartholomew said drivers will face difficulties “with things like buying cars on finance, but that has always been a problem with Uber”. 

“Drivers bear the risk with Uber that if Uber doesn’t like the cut of their gib and they switch them off, they are landed with the risk of a £20,000 car and so on. So there will be drivers for whom with Uber potentially having to close, they could find themselves lumbered with that.”

He suspects affected drivers will return to former employers and Uber customers will turn to minicabs, “there are more people prepared to use minicabs than there were before... that is absolutely true”. 

“It is likely not to be significantly impactful in the sense that human beings in London still have to get around,” he said. 

Yaseen Aslam, who along with James Farrar, won a landmark employment rights case against Uber earlier this year, said he was “confident” the company would win on appeal.

The co-founder of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain - said what he now wants is for workers’ rights to be “attached” to the licence, something Tfl have not done. 

“They’re five years too late, they should have been doing all those checks when they first licensed Uber five years ago,” he said. 

Aslam, echoed Khalil’s concerns that Uber’s increasing workforce was creating competition so fierce it drove some into poverty. 

“If you’ve got drivers working 80-90 hours a week earning £4-5 an hour, that’s not good enough.”

While Aslam said he thought Uber drivers would fare alright in the long-term, he believes the company has “messed up the economy in such a way where the prices have dropped so low, it’s going to be difficult for other operators to pick up”.

He added: “So certain people will be out of jobs. Some have bought cars on finance, taken out insurance for their cars, paid for licences and suddenly they’re out of jobs. You’d rather earn £3 an hour, than nothing.”

Uber on Friday said it would challenge the decision, saying those who use the app would be “astounded” by the ruling.

Private operating licences are awarded for a period of five years by TfL, after which operators must re-apply. The US-based firm was granted a four-month extension in May 2017 while TfL assessed its re-application.

Tom Elvidge, General Manager of Uber in London, said today: “By wanting to ban our app from the capital Transport for London and the Mayor have caved in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice. 

“If this decision stands, it will put more than 40,000 licensed drivers out of work and deprive Londoners of a convenient and affordable form of transport.

“To defend the livelihoods of all those drivers, and the consumer choice of millions of Londoners who use our app, we intend to immediately challenge this in the courts.

“This ban would show the world that, far from being open, London is closed to innovative companies who bring choice to consumers.”

The firm has also sent an email to its London customers asking them to lobby officials over the decision.