Nicholas Mazzei is a former Army Officer who now works for BT.
We Conservatives are on the wrong side of the Uber debate. Social media exploded last week with complaints about how TfL have bent to the will of the black taxi lobby by not renewing Uber’s license to operate in London. TfL’s reason is that Uber “demonstrate(s) a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications”. This case is well known, and I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say that the Conservatives should be supporting this decision, and holding Uber and other tech companies to account on how their platforms are used and managed.
The arguments in support of Uber by Tories usually focus on the free market – that Uber is innovating in a sector that has been dominated by legacy propositions, and that the unions are simply wanting to hold back progress. They also argue that the Mayor of London is supporting the latter in their fight and that, by not renewing Uber’s license, 40,000 employees will be put at risk. Finally, they say that TfL should investigate the black taxi firms and private hire companies to the same agree that Uber has been investigated.
I agree with most of those arguments. The innovation by Uber has revolutionised a backwards industry. It cut costs and made transport a high-tech sector. Customer service is generally good, giving you option of tracking your taxi when it’s on its way to you and over the journey, with a guarantee of a cost taken straight from your card rather than having to worry about carrying cash and getting all that useless coin change. The union lobby has been heavy-handed: instead of expending so much effort to ban Uber, they should have focused on innovating and improving service.
But these arguments don’t resolve the issues. Uber, along with other tech ‘platform’ based companies claim that they don’t have any employees. They’ve been taken to court over their policies on lack of sick pay, very poor pay rates and the way that they loan vehicles over ten years which drivers have to pay back out of their pay. They’ve been condemned and banned in other cities around the world, where they’ve been caught out using software to block regulators and inspectors from booking taxis, so an assessment of the standard of their service can be made.
Most worrying, they’ve failed to report criminal activity by drivers using their platform. Many customers have complained of stalking and sexual assault by drivers, as well as drivers abandoning them on the side of the road. Uber’s chief executive has resigned due to failures in corporate governance and miss-treatment of women in the company. Its attitude to women in the business is not just archaic – it’s practically stone age. Yet people remain silent over these issues, because the taxi company is “innovative and cheap”.
The anger by Conservatives over the potential loss of 40,000 jobs is also perplexing. The same people who raise an outcry over this are silent as Uber develop technology to eliminate all drivers, as they plan to bring in driverless vehicle technology. It’s an argument, I am told, about “protecting jobs today” – which is essentially the same argument that the black taxi lobby use, which says that Uber is taking their jobs. Uber’s jobs are also much lower-skilled than existing taxi roles. Arguing for jobs today is good and all but, by supporting Uber’s existence, Conservatives are bringing forward the loss of jobs tomorrow. This is not in itself an argument against automation; I am a strong advocate for it, but there needs to be a recognition by those arguing for Uber that their case isn’t really about protecting jobs.
Uber will now be forced to review its practices in London if it wants to continue operating here. 40,000 people will not lose their job at the end of September; Uber will appeal, and will be able to continue to operate while the process continues, which could last for months, if not years. Either Uber changes its work practices, protects its employees more (recognising them as such would be a start) and stops using technology to block inspectors – or it loses the right to operate in London. There are plenty of other services coming to replace Uber, which already offer better pay and rights to drivers. Taxify is one, and there will now be an opportunity for competition to step in. There is also a chance for black taxi firms to review their business model and change. The sector will transform and innovate as a result of this decision; competition will be boosted and consumers will benefit as a result.
It is, simply put, right that we stand up to the tech giants and their poor business practices. A cheap, simple service is not a good enough defence when delivered by a company with poor morals and corporate standards. Conservatives argue that we are the real workers’ party. Therefore it is right that we stand up to companies who treat their workers poorly.