In five short years, Uber has transformed our ability to get around. That means more than saving squiffy Londoners from the petrifying glare of the night bus in the small hours of Sunday morning. Thousands of businesses have switched their corporate spending power to Uber to transport workers across the capital, and the NHS is even considering using Uber to transfer non-emergency patients to and from hospital.
But while business is booming, the company has been plagued by negative news stories, from the #DeleteUber campaign to CEO Travis Kalanick being caught on video arguing with a driver about fares. There's also the issue of employment rights, with some drivers arguing they should be treated as Uber workers, benefitting from all that would entail: access to the national living wage, paid holidays and sick pay.
A spokeswoman at Uber told VICE that the vast majority of drivers say they want to be their own boss, but in October of last year two British Uber drivers – Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar – contested that in an employment tribunal. And they won, guaranteeing them basic rights to sick pay and holiday. Uber has since appealed the decision.
We asked Yaseen, who has since left Uber, if we should stop using Uber altogether, and what it's like to be behind the wheel when you and your wasted friends get in the car.
VICE: You have said many of the drivers in your union, United Private Hire Drivers, have suffered from depression and anxiety because of the work. Why is that?
Yaseen: If you have a driver working 90 hours a week, or seven 12-hour days, you don't get that quality time with your family and the mood is down all the time, so when you come home you don't really engage with your family. There is a high level of depression going on. It's to do with the trade and it's getting worse, because you've got no security, and if you've got a family there's a lot of pressure put on you. If I can't make my mortgage money this month, what do you do? You work longer and longer. This is why you get drivers driving tired.
You stop talking properly, your mind is not working properly, you're isolated, you start shaking when you're driving. They are all signs of low mood. Lots of drivers are stuck with this. But it's a pride thing – a lot of people don't like talking about it.
What do you think about the ruling that drivers must take an English test?
The problem with the English test is that many drivers can speak good English but might not be able to write to essay standard. You have people who have been doing this job for 15 or 20 years, who know their way around and are good drivers; they're suddenly out of a job.
It's going to temporarily sort the problem because TfL will see a reduction of licences being issued, but over time you're still going to get more drivers on the streets. How Uber works is they want to flood the streets with as many drivers as possible. As long as drivers have no workers rights, Uber has no commitments. If you have lots of drivers on the street it's good for Uber, it's good for the customers, but it's not good for the driver. You get drivers working longer and longer hours. [Uber told VICE they sign up new drivers to keep up with demand.]
Do people treat Uber drivers differently to minicab drivers?
Back in the day we would pick people up, drop them off, if the fare was £8 they would give you £10 and say thank you. Now it's become a culture thing where the customer controls you because of the rating. So you have to be nice to them.
Your Uber driver may smile and make conversation with you because they are afraid you'll rate them badly. When a driver hits 4.4, the threshold for being deactivated, they feel pressure to give out free drinks and sweets to try and push up their rating. That puts pressure on other drivers. Let's say one driver gave you sweets and opened the door for you, and the next driver didn't do that, you might rate them down. Uber doesn't force you to do this, but that's the way it works.
Why would a driver switch to Uber?
Drivers don't have any alternatives. All operators have been abusing drivers for years, which is why when Uber came to London drivers grabbed it with both hands, because they wanted to get away from controllers. But as Uber got hold of the market they started exploiting people at another level.
When I first started with Uber, around 2014, I was averaging £1,000 after expenses for around 40 hours, which was really good. We're not expecting the same, even if drivers are making £500 for the same time – that's good enough. But I've seen the prices go down three times. [Uber says UberX fares have only changed once, in August of 2014.]
What can users do?
We're not asking people to boycott Uber because it makes the situation worse, because you've got more drivers sitting on the street doing nothing. Tipping drivers is a good sign of appreciation. Especially around London, if people can tip drivers they would help.
But really the answer is for Uber to guarantee these drivers rights. I just don't see the prices being able to go back up again.