London’s Uber Ban Raises Questions on Race and Immigration
There is one question that bothers Sahrab Shinwari: “Would they have banned Uber if its drivers had been white and English?”
The shock decision last month to strip Uber of its London license has been rippling across the British capital, animating conversations at all layers of London life — about Uber’s convenient and cheap service in a market long dominated by iconic but pricey black cabs; about the company’s flawed track record in corporate governance; and about the kind of capitalism Britain wants after the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union last year.
But at street level, the city was buzzing with more uncomfortable questions — like the one that troubled Mr. Shinwari, himself an Uber driver who came to London from Afghanistan nine years ago. He is one of the company’s 40,000 drivers in London. Most of them are nonwhite and many of them immigrants, something which has sharpened racial divisions in the working class at a time when incomes at the bottom are squeezed, and the city’s post-Brexit future is still uncertain.
Uber has already appealed the decision and the company’s new chief executive is arriving on Tuesday for a peacemaking mission. But the ride-hailing service’s fate has resonated so deeply in London because it has disrupted more than transportation. It has disrupted politics, too, surfacing hypocrisies and fraying the social fabric of this proudly cosmopolitan city.
On the left, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, who is himself the son of an immigrant bus driver, applauded the license decision as a victory for “passenger safety,” aligning himself with black-cab drivers who are mostly British, white and right-leaning.
On the right, George Osborne, the editor of London’s Evening Standard and a former Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote an editorial accusing the mayor of “shutting out the future” — only to be slapped down himself by the ethics council of the National Union of Journalists for failing to declare that he sits on the board of the fund manager BlackRock, a major investor in Uber.
Britain’s Trades Union Congress called Uber’s license loss a “big win for workers’ rights.” The GMB, a union whose members include taxi drivers and Uber drivers, praised a decision for “fairness and safety.” The left-wing commentator Paul Mason tweeted: “Brilliant victory for trade unions, labor movement and London cabbies.”
“What about us?” asked Samir Sahel, another Uber driver and a second-generation Indian immigrant. “Are we not part of the working class?”
What most frustrated the dozen Uber drivers interviewed for this article was that labor standards, so widely mentioned by Uber’s critics over the past 10 days, did not actually come into the licensing decision.
Transport for London, or TfL, the city’s regulator, justified its decision not to renew Uber’s operating license notably by citing concerns about passenger safety, insufficient medical and criminal background checks for drivers, and the way the company reported crimes.
The London police accused Uber of failing to promptly report at least six cases of sexual assault last year, but the company argues that it has worked closely with the authorities and that the issue is being blown out of proportion. Drivers also pointed to Transport for London’s role in granting them individual licenses.
“TfL used a terrible excuse,” said Mr. Shinwari, the Afghan Uber driver. “They are the ones who issue our license. They vet black-cab and they vet us. We even pay them to vet us!”
Rather than addressing longstanding concerns over low incomes, long hours and minimal benefits, the ruling further stigmatized Uber drivers as potential criminals, he said. Minutes after Friday’s decision one of his friends had called him and joked: “You’re a rapist, innit.”
But Mr. Shinwari also resents Uber for asking drivers to lobby the mayor on the company’s behalf. “It’s like the jaguar asking the deer to be friends,” he said. In the past two years, his income has roughly halved, he said. When he joined Uber two years ago, there were about 20,000 drivers on the road. That figure has doubled since. “There are not enough jobs for all of us,” he said, echoing a popular complaint from traditional cabbies. Meanwhile, the company increased the commission it takes on new drivers’ fares to 25 percent.
James Farrar, a former Uber driver who is fighting the company in court over demands to provide holiday pay and better wages, said the omission of any discussion of Uber’s labor practices in the ruling suggested that the regulator and the mayor “were O.K.” with them.
“TFL did not stand up for workers’ rights,” he said, pointing to other ride-hailing companies like Taxify and Lyft waiting eagerly to take Uber’s place in London should it lose an appeal against the ruling. “It sent a clear signal: With or without Uber, the door is wide open to operate with these conditions.”
“All these people say they’re championing the working class but what they really mean is they’re championing the white working class,” added Mr. Farrar, who is also the chairman of the private hire drivers’ branch of the IWGB union.
Uber’s general manager for northern Europe quit unexpectedly on Monday. Its chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, is arriving on Tuesday for talks with the transportation authority. If he has already expressed a measure of contrition, Mr. Khosrowshahi also knows that Uber has a devoted following in London. A petition to keep its service in the city, which it has promoted through its app, had gotten just over 845,000 signatures by Monday night.
Uber drivers across town, continuing to work as the decision was being appealed, fretted about making down payments on their cars and putting food on the table for their children. And they worried that tensions could escalate with black-cab drivers, emboldened by the ruling and yet conscious that a lengthy appeals process might lie ahead.
Zahra Bakkali, a Moroccan Uber driver and mother of five, was working in her white Prius when she first heard on the radio that Uber would not be relicensed. She had been messaging with other female drivers on her Super Uber Ladies WhatsApp group about how much more “aggressive and violent” the cabbies would become once the license was renewed. After the ruling, the conversation changed.
“What are we gonna do?” one wrote.
“I was solely relying on this for income,” another worried.
“The cabbies will have a field day,” a third added gloomily.
London’s taxi wars predate the Brexit referendum but have been fought along similar dividing lines. “There is a big difference between us and them,” said Mark Thompson, a 52-year-old black-cab driver.
London’s 23,000 black-cab drivers study on average four years to learn 25,000 roads and 100,000 landmarks by heart before passing the world’s toughest taxi exam, “The Knowledge.” Uber drivers ferry passengers across the city with the help of satellite navigation.
Malcolm Shaffron, who has been driving a black cab for nearly 50 years, argues that passengers are not safe with Uber drivers because they “cannot drive” and they “cannot be properly vetted.”
“How do you check the criminal record of someone who is fresh off the boat from Sudan or from the desert of Ethiopia?” he asked.
But many Uber drivers said that they had been the victims of aggression. Mr. Shinwari says he has been spat upon and suffered racist slurs. The day after last year’s Brexit referendum, he said, a black-cab driver cut open his forehead with a beer glass, sending him to the hospital.
Mr. Sahel, who grew up in the East End of London and now lives in Essex, just beyond the city’s boundaries, five doors down from a black-cab driver. “We never even acknowledge each other,” he said. “That’s how serious the tension is.”
There is one thing most traditional cabbies and Uber drivers agree on: Most doubt that Uber will leave London, or that the nationalist impulses that fueled Brexit can stop the march of technological progress.
“What are they going to shut down next? Google?” asked Sergejs Malacenko, a Latvian Uber driver who arrived in Britain in 2004.
Or as Mr. Shaffron, the cabby, put it: “We won a battle, Uber will win the war.”