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Uber is no better than an old-fashioned gangmaster – so London’s cabbies are striking

I started driving a cab for one reason. It was the only way a working-class boy like me could be his own boss. My grandad and my father both worked the London docks as poorly paid temporary labourers, never knowing if there was work for them when they got to the gates each day, always at the mercy of unscrupulous bosses. That sort of insecurity is a horror best left in the past, but if Uber is allowed to have its way in the capital driving a cab will no longer offer an escape route.
I never wanted to be drawn into politics. Before my trade began to be “disrupted”, I was happy working the rank at Waterloo station but on Wednesday I, and thousands of fellow black taxi drivers, will be striking on the streets of London.
You have to work hard to get your cabbies’ green badge, as hard as any university student. For three years you do the world-famous “knowledge of London”, but our honourable vocation is under threat from unfair competition.
Don’t misunderstand me. For as long as there have been black cabs there’s been competition. All taxi drivers are self-employed – in direct competition with one another. There have been minicabs since the 1960s and in recent years, bigger operators have come into the market. Then along came Uber, with its libertarian friends in Downing Street cheering it on.
Uber simply does not respect the people in Britain. Before it had even begun to operate in this country, Uber had designed its company structure so that UK profits are diverted through the Netherlands. All perfectly legal, but it means this $50bn company paid £22,134 in corporation tax from a profit of £866,000 in the UK in the last financial year.
Yet any criticism of Uber’s business model is treated as an attack on the new digital economy. This could not be further from the truth, as far as I’m concerned. There are huge numbers of digital companies doing great things for the economy. I use a few of them in my cab. Uber’s profitability, however, seems to be based on replacing decent work that provides stable employment for a council estate boy from Bermondsey like me with highly insecure jobs that pay poverty wages. This is not the kind of “innovation” that will help us create a sustainable economy for future generations.

It is clear the Tory party is on an ideological crusade against my industry. Its interference in London’s recent private hire review shows just how far the government will go to deregulate the UK hackney carriage trade. The United Cabbies Group has been campaigning to put a stop to the taxi deregulation agenda and to bring an end to the lowering of transport safety standards.

It seems to me that Uber is eroding one of the only paths still open to those working-class London kids who want to get a stable job at a time when social mobility has screeched to a halt. When I was younger, driving a cab gave me the luxury of security for myself and my family, of never having to be fearful that I could be laid off at any old time, or have my pay cut.

Driving a taxi gave me freedom too – I have been probably the first person from my family to truly experience it. Uber says it’s at the forefront of innovation, but the truth is that Uber is no better than the old-fashioned gangmaster down the docks – a return to the bad old days of providing insecure work that pays too little and which takes away the very opportunity from working-class children that I was lucky enough to have: the chance to be your own person, to be your own boss, without having to rely on a handout.

Taxi drivers have no choice but to follow the example of our counterparts in France last month and mount a campaign of civil disobedience to protest at the corporate capture of our democracy.

So when we strike, we’ll be calling on the government to create a level playing field by making sure that companies such as Uber pay their full share of UK tax.

When we strike, it’s to say that there should be one law for rich and poor alike.

And when we strike, it’s because a dreadful injustice is being perpetrated by the puppet masters of Britain’s rigged economy – against honest, hardworking people like me. Those same “hardworking people”, I seem to remember, that not so long ago the Tories swore to protect.

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