They say you can get used to anything in time, but I am not sure that is true. Some things in life, such as the loss of a loved one, we must find the courage to accept. Others, like discrimination and exploitation, we must find the courage to fight. Two weeks ago, I lost my dear son, Hadi, to leukaemia at 12 and somehow my family and I must find a way to grieve and carry on, though I doubt we will ever get over it.
I have worked as a minicab driver for Uber since Hadi first became ill. The job provided much-needed flexibility while my wife and I juggled lengthy stays at Great Ormond Street hospital and tried to keep things as normal as possible for Hadi’s two sisters at home. I borrowed money to buy a vehicle, applied for a Transport for London (TfL) minicab licence and went to work, trusting that I would be paid fairly. Shortly after, Uber dropped fare prices to grab market share and TfL flooded the streets, doubling the number of minicab licences in a few short years. Now, there are just too many drivers chasing too little work, leading to too much congestion and too little pay. The upshot is that drivers like me work as much as 70 hours each week to earn just £5 per hour.
Three years ago, I decided something needed to be done so I joined the successful legal challenge against Uber, fighting for worker rights for drivers. I was overjoyed when we won. But today, we are still no better off, as we wait while Uber pursues one appeal after another as it tries to block our legal rights.
When Sadiq Khan ran for election as mayor of London, I was inspired by his story – how his father migrated to London from Pakistan, working as a London bus driver to raise a family and see a son rise to be mayor. I felt sure he would hold Uber to account on its terrible workers’ rights record when it applied to renew its licence in 2017. The London assembly passed a resolution asking Khan to make worker rights a condition of renewing Uber’s licence, and Frank Field MP wrote a report exposing the sweatshop conditions London’s minicab drivers suffer. But Khan failed to act. Despite temporarily revoking Uber’s licence on safety grounds, the mayor never challenged the company’s business model, which is dependent on the oversupply of vehicles and the exploitation of workers. Maybe there are more votes for cheap and plentiful minicabs than there is in ending exploitation of drivers.
Now, the mayor has decided to remove the congestion charge exemption for minicab drivers from April which, according to TfL, will cost an average driver an extra £230 per month. For me, that means a 25% pay cut. The only way I can make it up is by working another 10 hours per week. I could avoid the charge if I take out more debt and buy an electric vehicle. But, with low fares, not enough charging spots and no guarantee of my worker rights, it’s a really risky move.
Minicab drivers have always been exempt from paying the congestion charge as we already pay a licence fee. Meanwhile, black cabs will remain exempt and face no such charge, even though the taxi fleet is older and more polluting than the minicab fleet. The mayor has made a £42m fund available for black cab drivers to buy electric taxis, but there is no money for minicab drivers. TfL’s own policy analysis shows that 94% of minicab drivers are black, Asian and minority ethnic like me, and 71% of us come from deprived London communities. Black cab drivers are overwhelmingly white British and are politically powerful in City Hall. That has made all the difference for them.
What makes this decision even more puzzling is that the mayor’s environmental plan doesn’t stack up. TfL’s analysis shows congestion will be reduced by only 1% and air quality will get worse as passengers are shifted out of clean minicabs into dirtier, older taxis. Big corporate operators such as Uber have been given a free pass from Khan to carry on business as usual. They will not have to cover this extra cost, nor will they pass it on to consumers. Drivers like me are left stuck with it.
I wish for clean air and good health for all Londoners, but the mayor’s policy is discriminatory, illegal and will not deliver for the environment. That is why my union, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, has decided to legally challenge the mayor on grounds of discrimination. We have launched a crowdfunding appeal so that the many of us who have little can give a little and fight for justice in the courts.
It is said that the key to contentment is accepting the things we can’t change, changing the things we can and having the wisdom to know the difference. I know what I must learn to accept. But I will never accept exploitation and discrimination – not from Uber and not from the mayor of London.
• Abdurazak Hadi is an Uber driver