A few blocks behind the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe theater is a place few tourists, or even Londoners, ever see. Keep going past the Tesco Express and through an unmarked driveway to reach a car park jammed with black cabs.
In the well hidden places around London where drivers of the city’s iconic Black Cabs can have a rest, a cup of tea and a bacon sarni in a cash-only cafe fashioned from a double-wide mobile home. Open 24 hours, the Great Suffolk Street Taxi Cafe is a place for comfort food and conversation.
London cabbies are notorious for having strong opinions. About everything. These days however, Uber is a popular topic.
After Transport for London (TfL), the British capital’s transport regulator,to operate, we visited the cafe to see what cabbies thought of the news. One might have expected elation, but the reality was a mix of defiance, quiet resignation and “bring it on.” To many of the drivers, Uber, which arrived in London in 2012, is destroying a proud and historic tradition that plays a vital and iconic role in the city’s life. Competition is fine, they say, but fair competition is not what this is.
Drivers socialize in the patchy afternoon sun and a steady stream of cabs (officially called Hackney carriages) arrive and park at the disused gas pumps of an old service station.
There’s not a lot to capture your attention inside the spartan cafe, with its hard plastic chairs and bare tables. A TV plays Sky Sports. The menu is equally spartan: instant coffee for £1, a full English breakfast (served all day) for £5, and a selection of classic British desserts like sticky toffee pudding, jam roly-poly and spotted dick. We’re only minutes from some of London’s poshest restaurants, but this feels miles away. (The Taxi Cafe is open to the public.)
Around several of the tables, groups of cabbies enjoy their lunch with few moments of silence. It takes a while to break into the conversation at the next table, but just a brief mention of Uber wins us an invitation to sit and share a cuppa and a chinwag.
Sean Paul Day, a driver of 18 years, has the table’s center seat. Tall and animated, he speaks rapidly and gets straight to the point. “The KGB would have given their right arm to have Uber’s power,” he says while eating a large plate of fish and chips (at £9, one of the pricier dishes on the menu). Uber “is a global, heavily financed profiteer going against a local taxi trade. As big as the taxi service is in London, it’s still local.”
Uber has appealed TfL’s decision and will be allowed to operate normally during that process. On Oct. 3, the company’sDara Khosrowshahi, who had to Londoners for “messing up,” visited London to hold talks with the city’s transit officials. In a tweet that same day, he said he was “determined to make things right in this great city!” TfL also released a statement on Tuesday characterizing the talks as “constructive” and said that more discussion would continue in the coming weeks.
The global versus local debate is hardly unique to Uber, but it exemplifies a common theme we heard over and again. None of these taxi drivers is angry at Uber’s drivers; rather, their beef is with Uber as a company. George Vyse, who’s been driving for 47 years and buying and selling used black cabs for 40 years, is outraged at how little Uber pays its drivers, describing it as “slave labor.”
Black-cab drivers are self-employed, meaning they can keep all the money they earn from fares. Uber, on the other hand, takes up to 25 percent of every fare. The company doesn’t openly speak about average earnings, but last year union GMB won a case against Uber because one driver was found to be earning less than minimum wage after the company had taken its cut. With a £2.60 flat-rate base fare for any cab ride, black-cab drivers need to pick up only three passengers an hour to earn the national minimum wage of £7.50.
It has always been the case that women felt perfectly safe riding in a licenced cab when alone. There were cases of assault but they were rare, largely because it is very difficult to qualify as a licenced cab driver and the god living that qualification brings is not lightly thrown away. Transport for London’s main beef was Uber’s attitude to passenger safety, the company omitted to report sex crimes committed by its drivers and did not even discipline drivers whose sexual misdemeanours with female passengers were the subject of complaints. This has resulted in widespread anger, not just in London, similar situations have arisen in other European cities and Uber have already been banned in Barcelona and several German cities. There have been more reported sexual offences against cab passengers in the last two to three years by Uber drivers than by licenced cabbies in the 50 years preceding Uber’s arrival in the city.
Thirty two Uber drivers were accused of rape or sexual assault in the 2016 alone, according to freedom of information data obtained by The Sun newspaper. Earlier this year, existing fears about Uber were exacerbated when the Metropolitan Police Force accused the company of failing to report sex attacks. Now TfL has piled on, accusing Uber of being careless with Londoners’ safety by failing to institute proper background vetting.
But as with the minimum wage law and other national laws, Uber, like most silicon valley tech giants seems to have a free pass to ignore them. It may have met its match in London’s voluble cab drivers however.