Nowhere is the advance of technology more ruthlessly visible than on the high street. A decade ago, just about every city in Britain had a Blockbuster Video, a couple of travel agents, a Virgin Megastore, a Borders and a Gamestation. None of those shops remain, beaten into bankruptcy or administration by the digital revolution.
Yet, one bastion of pre-internet times endures: the humble minicab office. Over Christmas we spoke to drivers and controllers from minicab offices in London to find out how they're coping with the increasingly digitised taxicab market, and we checked in with an Uber driver to find out what the changing market looks like from his perspective.
Mehmet, 47, Atlas Carz, Old St
VICE: How did you get started?
Mehmet: I was a controller for nearly five years, then I started to drive, and became a minicab driver. All together I've been 27 years in the profession.
How has the job changed in that time?
Since Uber's appeared on the scene it's had a big effect on a lot of people – good and bad, but mainly bad. It's affected a lot of drivers. Big time. It's mainly to do with the drivers, because to be honest with you a lot of them aren't professional. That's why, since October, they brought out this B1 English language requirement certificate, which you have to supply when you renew. There's a lot of failures because a lot of drivers out there, unfortunately, can't read or write or speak English properly, and the way I look at it is, they should be able to, because God forbid if they have an accident with their passenger, on the health and safety of it, they're able to communicate and assist each other.
Do you like your work?
At the end of the day our job is to get them home safely. Because a lot of them, believe it or not – especially the female customers, which is our top priority – some of them are in such a vulnerable state that somebody has to take care of them. That falls into our hands. Many times I've assisted a lot of females out of my vehicle, all the way to their front door, and tried to get them in safely, because I can't leave them in the street at two in the morning, because God forbid if something happens to that female, I'm responsible.
Murat, 47, 24/7 Minicabs Old St
VICE: How did you get started in the minicab business?
Murat: I opened about 2000. I want to open a business helping other people, and now I've got about 30 drivers and I'm thinking not just about the 30 drivers – I'm thinking about their family as well, because they are feeding their family from this business. When they go to the Uber, they don't have any choice; they don't have anyone to talk to face-to-face [most dealings between Uber and their drivers take place via email], but we are a small company: if they got any problems they coming straight to us because I've learned minicab is like that. Anybody can start minicab without knowledge, anything, they open the door to everybody.
How do you get along with the other companies in the area?
Because we are very good, but not many minicab companies left this area – all of them get shut. I'm lucky, I try my hard, I working like 24 hours, I don't wanna lose my business, and I need someone to help to tell us what we can do. Because this one is really, really completely wrong, what they're doing, they try to kill us.
Do you mean Uber?
Yes. Uber coming to this country killed all the small minicab office. Governments give them the chance to, because they don't want small business – they want big business. What they want is to kill small business and then quote however much they want. For example, when they get busy on Friday, Saturday, a £5 ride can be £20. And that one is not good for the customer, because they don't have a choice. And the second thing, this government is charging us minicab office money to give us the license, but we don't have any parking place, we don't have anything. For example, black cab drivers – they can go any place, any hotel, but we don't have that chance; we don't have anything. We have to go to the street because they don't give us that chance. And we're working hard. That's it.
What do you think about bringing in the B1 Language Proficiency Test?
That one is completely wrong. For example, somebody started minicab – they didn't say anything; no language test or anything. For example, they buy their house or borrow some money to buy the car – now they say language. If these people don't have the language, they're gonna lost their house, they're gonna lose their business. It must be wrong, this one.
What's your sleeping pattern? Are you nocturnal?
I'm working in the office, I'm sleeping sometimes on the chair, because it's very hard to give this time to the wages, and I need to work hard because I don't wanna lose my business. And lots of people are working here – I want them to be fine.
Hassan, 38, Granada Cars, Brixton
VICE: Could you tell me how you got started?
Hassan: Minicab is actually one of the businesses which is very low-investment, which is why loads of people doing this one, start minicab office. And – slowly, slowly – we invest the business, we start carding, phone calls, advertisement, so business will be built. Business will run very perfectly. It's not like you make very good money, but you can survive in it, and loads of drivers involved are working for a local minicab office with local customers they know very well, all very local, reliable.
Has this changed recently?
Now, everything's changed. Uber has come out, business completely goes different ways, day by day. That phone call is cut out. All of the drivers have joined Uber so we are suffering staff cuts driver-wise. Now it's one of the painful businesses, minicabs, at the moment… You can not survive on your wages, you can not survive any kind of utility bills. One week five drivers [leave to work for Uber], the next week it's ten drivers, because the drivers are interested to work with Uber, and price-wise it's very, very cheap, Uber. When we tell our customer, "Our fare's £10," they say, "No, thank you very much, because in Uber I can go for £5." And we cannot afford that amount. At the moment the minicab industry is completely dead. However, we're running, we carry on as a whole. Maybe this week, maybe this month, maybe we can just survive. To be honest, minicab office is not an ideal business at the moment.
Is it the same for other firms in the area?
Our area before was loads of minicab offices; loads of minicab offices at the moment shut down. They cannot cope. At the moment, in Brixton there are only two offices. And the two offices, both are like, "We cannot survive." Any day, maybe, my one or the other one will be closed down.
Anwar, 32, Metro Cars, Clapham
VICE: How did you get started?
Anwar: We started this from scratch, about five years ago. Until Uber came over, we were doing very well. But because of Uber everyone is suffering, so we are. Before that I was at uni, got my MBA from going to university, then rather than working for someone we decided to have our own little company.
What happened when Uber started in London?
They started three years ago – a couple of years after we did. The worst thing is they were using meter, the black cab system. They don't let other cab companies do that otherwise there's no difference between black cabs and minicabs. It's a matter of where you can be fair and not be fair. The price they're charging, it's too little. £8 to the city… if I send my driver, he won't go!
How do you get along with other minicab offices?
To be very honest, so many small cab offices have been shut because of Uber. So there's not plenty. So whoever they are, they are kind of suffering. They are fighting between life and death. What Uber did, if any other cab company did that, the PCO [Public Carriage Office] would have shut them long ago. But because it's Uber – big money, big people – they can do anything and everything.
Sylvina, 55, P&L Minicabs Acre Lane
VICE: How did you get started?
Sylvina: We've been here from 1968. I've been here from 1978. Long time. Very, very long time, when cabbing was good.
How do you get along with the other minicab offices around?
There isn't very many around now, but who is around, we all sort of club together. The smaller ones, obviously, not the bigger ones. Especially the ones that've been around for years. We get on alright – we're alright. We're all under the same pressure, so we understand.
I guess Uber has changed everything?
We're on the point of really wondering if it's worth going on, to be quite honest. Cos it's taken, I'd say, at least 75 percent of business. You're sitting here at 8 in the morning – I wouldn't have time to speak to you usually, cos I got school runs, work. I don't get any of that now. We've had other owners of small offices coming in… like, when it first happened, they were coming in and saying to me, "Is it just me, or…" All of them popped in or rang up, and you just gotta say to them, "Same thing," you know? They [customers] still want us to take in their parcels, but when they're ready to go out you see an Uber pull up. You get to the point that you don't want to take in their parcels no more. They've monopolised everything. UberEATS, trying to get out Deliveroo, they're trying to monopolise everything. It's not fair. I feel like getting a sign printed and putting it out there: "Support your local community minicab." Does Uber take your kids to school or put them in here when they're locked out? We do all them things! When Uber first opened and everyone started talking about it, our drivers halved straight away because they went to Uber. Our workforce was split in half. To be honest, when we were supposed to be relicensed in January we had to really, really think if it was worth it.
Do you ever feel in danger in your job?
We've always got drunk people. These days it's not even the drunk people, it's the dangers of the job when you've got armed people. I've had to struggle out there with a guy with a gun before – my poor colleagues chasing me down the road because I'm chasing him. I was so angry, I didn't even think of it! Grabbed the gun out his hand, he grabbed it back. Mostly it's the drunk people just getting in the cab who don't know where they live, or going to the wrong house, or getting out the cab and thinking they've paid and you've gotta go and knock on the door and their mum opens the door at four in the morning. It's funny – it's mostly people who live far out: Bromley and all those sorts of places.
What about the hours?
At the moment I'm on day shifts. I've done the night shift many times, though. Many, many times – especially on a Saturday night. And like I say, it's weird, actually, because Saturday night used to be quite a good shift cos it was so busy. Now you have to keep wondering to yourself, 'Is it Saturday?' That's how bad it is. Before we'd do 200, 300 jobs on a Saturday night. We're lucky if we do 40 now. On a Saturday night. Because of Uber.
Marc, Uber driver
VICE: Mark, I was wondering what your experiences were – if you'd always worked for Uber or if you'd done other cab driving in the past, and what your experience of Uber as a company has been like?
Mark: I think a key point there is that – and Uber stresses this too – I'm a partner driver with Uber, which essentially means that I'm self-employed. So I have this amazing flexibility to work when I want to work, to stay at home when I want to stay at home, and before partnering with Uber I was an entrepreneur – I kind of still am – working on web projects, websites, web surfaces, and when our baby came along I decided it was time to put some more money on the table on a more regular basis, so I decided to sign up with Uber. It's been a really positive experience. You know, it's kind of addictive, actually. You meet amazing people every single day, from all walks of life. I've had Goran Ivanišević, the 2001 Wimbledon champion; I've had a chief executive from Netflix in the back of the car; and everything in between. And so I'm having a great time!
Lots of the minicab drivers and operators feel that the people driving for Uber aren't "professional" in the way that minicab drivers are. Would you agree?
I think for them to level that criticism is sort of missing the point. If you have got a driver's license then you're generally deemed a competent driver, so, OK, there's that. If you can read a satellite navigation system then you'll know your way around, and what it's simply done is it's allowed the person who isn't ordinarily a private hire driver the opportunity to serve the public. So Uber's given me the opportunity to serve the public. And I'll be honest with you, I don't know what a "professional" minicab driver is anyway. You don't need any professional qualifications to be a minicab driver – anyone who wants to do it can do it, and we all have to jump through the same hoops, you know, to get our licenses and so on.
What about the language certification test that's been brought in? Some feel it's a good thing, as a decent level is required from a health and safety perspective, while others feel it's unfair as you don't need much common language to get from A to B.
I think the jury is out. There are two sides to this. Personally I believe that it is important that the driver can communicate with the passenger. To live in a country I think you should be able to communicate with those people around you. There might be an emergency situation which needs you to communicate important information on behalf of the passenger, or ask the passenger questions, so there's that side of it. Because of the nature of the automation of the Uber service, it means that I – as an English speaker – can travel to China, or a foreign country, and order an Uber, and I don't speak the driver's language, but the driver can still get me from A to B. So there's that side of it as well. But I personally feel that it is important to be able to have a grasp of the English language, if only to have friendly conversation.
Something I think lots of people are worried about is this issue of Uber possibly becoming a monopoly and pushing smaller businesses out, then pushing up the prices, which will obviously affect the consumer.
Yes, Uber is phenomenally successful, and it's expanding faster than anyone would have imagined. But I also feel that the market is going to regulate the growth of Uber. So the market's gonna dictate the fares. For example, not all the drivers that join Uber stay with Uber, so that as well is gonna affect the rate of growth, the size of the company, so I personally don't think that Uber's gonna monopolise the industry – I think there's enough pie to go around. The market will find its levels. That's how I see it. We could look at other examples – for example, the internet hasn't wiped out retail stores. When we look back just 10, 20 years we can see that while the internet's fantastic, there are still shops open; in fact, it's facilitated better business for retail outlets. And I think it's the same for Uber.
So you think Uber gets a bad rap?
Generally organisations that are outstandingly successful often come into stick, and I think that, not only the Uber management, but the drivers, have to have a thick skin because sometimes we get stick on the road as well, because we get sort of demonised unfairly, and what I think it's important to remember is that London loves us because, you know, when it all goes wrong – like this morning we had the tube strike – we can still get people from A to B.
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