Mr Uddin is one of around 40,000 Uber drivers in London, who are worried about their future employment prospects following TfL’s decision not to renew Uber’s licence
“Do you think Uber will close?” asked Mr Uddin, a worried 52-year-old British Bangladeshi Uber driver.
“I’ve just heard on my car radio that more than 600,000 people have signed a petition against its closure and the number is growing all the time,” I replied, in an attempt to provide him with some moral support. “My guess is that although the [London] Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has said he backs TfL’s [Transport for London] decision not to renew Uber’s licence, with that number of people campaigning against closure he will be very keen find a way to solve the problem and continue to let Uber operate. I mean that’s what politicians who want to get re-elected do – they respond to popular opinion, don’t they?”
Mr Uddin, a first-generation migrant from Sylhet, who lives in a council flat in Bethnal Green in the heart of the UK’s most populous Bangladeshi community, nodded appreciatively at my reply but it was obvious from his facial expression that he remained concerned about his future employment prospects, especially the likely effects on his wife and four children if he could no longer work.
In fact, Mr Uddin is one of around 40,000 Uber drivers in the UK capital, serving an estimated 3.5 million users of the app-driven service. It’s evident that many of the company’s drivers in London come from ethnic minority backgrounds, and that most have little in the way of formal educational qualifications that would smooth their way into other parts of the UK’s increasingly digital economy. Indeed, with employment as waiters or kitchen staff in the once buoyant Bangladeshi-dominated “Indian” restaurant trade becoming increasingly scarce, there are few alternative job opportunities for middle-aged Bangladeshi men such as Mr Uddin.
Sadiq Khan, the most powerful Labour politician in the land, undoubtedly has a delicate balancing act to perform. The son of working-class Pakistani immigrants who became a human rights lawyer, he will know very well the social and economic background and circumstances of the vast majority of Uber drivers, as well as the displeasure of millions of relatively and very affluent, predominantly Labour-backing users, of the service in London.
Little wonder that once he sniffed the way the political wind was blowing he said: “I have every sympathy with Uber drivers and customers, affected by this decision but their anger really should be directed at Uber. They have let down their drivers and customers by failing, in the view of TfL, to act as a fit and proper operator.” He added, being careful to reinforce his position as a champion of social and economic “openness” in the capital: “I suspect it will take some time before this situation with Uber fully plays out. In the meantime, I will continue to help support innovative businesses in London and to create a vibrant and safe taxi and private hire market.”
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi-born Iqbal Wahhab, owner of Roast restaurant in Borough Market and a former chair of the Department of Work and Pensions Ethnic Minority Advisory Group, reminded TfL in an article for the International Business Times that it has a legal duty not to discriminate against ethnic minority groups. He added: “If they are able to win their appeal, Uber will have to rigorously clean up its conduct and be fit to serve London better. But by having put fear of economic uncertainty into 40,000 households yesterday, City Hall could also more rigorously interrogate all its responsibilities – not just to those who are highly vocal but also to those who are quietly marginalized and trying to enter the mainstream economy.”
Back in Mr Uddin’s living room I hear about what entering the mainstream economy by working for Uber entails. “I work nights – about five or six hours on average,” he says. “It suits me. And the people like Uber – it’s much less expensive than calling a black cab.” Before he goes out for his night shift, his wife always makes him a black coffee. “Then I feel strong,” he says, flexing his arms. “It means I can work without feeling tired. If someone wants me to take them on a long journey, say, to Birmingham [around 100 miles] it’s not a problem.”
Some sort of compromise between Uber and TfL around employment rights and passenger safety needs to be hammered out quickly. For sure, it would be a great shame for all concerned if Mr Uddin never again drove a passenger to Birmingham.
Dr Sean Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester
a version of this article was also published at anthropologyworks.com
* Published in print edition on 6 October 2017