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Protecting private hire and taxi drivers in the COVID-19 pandemic

Figures from the UK Office for National Statistics suggest that rates of death from Covid-related causes have been around three times higher for private hire and taxi drivers compared to the general adult population, and even higher than the rates of death among care workers. But why this is the case, and who should carry responsibility for their protection in future?.

Since 2018, members of the Work Futures Research Group at Nottingham Trent University have been researching working conditions for private hire and Hackney taxi drivers in England. Worsening conditions of precarity among drivershelp explain why so many have died in the current pandemic. Our findings suggest steps that urgently need to be taken to protect drivers in light of COVID-19

Fundamentally, there is a deep-seated failure on the part of many key stakeholders to take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of drivers, including central government, local government and private hire operators. This is shaped partly by the legal definition of drivers as self-employed, a designation which denies drivers many of the rights that are afforded other workers and employees, such as a minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, or paid rest breaks. This designation also distances operators from any responsibility for drivers’ working conditions. Instead of sick pay, Uber offers ‘partner protection insurance’ which only covers drivers if they get sick while in the act of driving a passenger to their destination. Some drivers argue they should be designated as ‘workers’, on the basis that they work consistently for the same operator and do not have the power to set their own prices or control many other aspects of their work. This has been the subject of an ongoing legal battle against Uber that recently reached the UK Supreme Court.

A second significant factor underpinning the vulnerability of drivers is the UK regulatory framework, which gives a high priority to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of passengers but makes no provisions for the protection of drivers. Our interviews with key individuals in a local authority highlighted that making safe working conditions a requirement as part of a private hire operator’s licence would require changes to national legislation and additional resources for monitoring and enforcement.

The only consistent advocates for drivers’ safety have been drivers’ own organisations including trade unions, associations and cooperatives. These organisations are often divided and under pressure from competition between drivers that has worsened in recent years as the number of cars has increased. Uber started operating in England in 2012 and the sector was deregulated in 2015, allowing private hire cars registered in one local authority to operate elsewhere. These two factors have contributed to an increased supply of private hire cars, meaning that both private hire and hackney drivers often struggle to find work and longstanding drivers work longer hours in order to make enough to live.

The oversupply of drivers combined with the refusal by key stakeholders to share responsibility for drivers’ wellbeing has produced enduring economic insecurity. Drivers are usually responsible for all costs associated with their vehicle, and for paying annual licence fees to the local authority and either a fixed monthly sum or a percentage of income to the operator. But they have no guarantee of income. Some drivers reported struggling to make enough to cover their expenses and living costs, including private hire drivers reporting average hourly income of as little as £5 after costs. In this context, it is difficult to imagine how such drivers would have been able to stop working during the pandemic, even if they had characteristics that meant they should have been shielding at home. As self-employed workers, financial support only became available to drivers from June, and there have been suggestions that many would not have qualified under the government’s limited conditions. This pressure to continue working increased drivers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 while at work.

Added to this is the nature of drivers’ working environment, in a confined space with a succession of different people. The risks are particularly acute for private hire drivers because there is usually no screen separating the driver from passengers. No requirement or funding has been established so far by government for such screens or for PPE to be installed, again reflecting an attitude that drivers are solely responsible for their own protection. Local authorities have been left to come up with their own approaches, leading the Local Government Association to issue its own guidance and prompting the London chair of the United Private Hire Drivers to threaten legal action. While masks were made mandatory for passengers on public transport in England from 15 June, the same has not been required for private hire or Hackney passengers.

The government has issued guidance that drivers may refuse to accept passengers without a mask, but once again this places the responsibility on drivers. Our research found that drivers often feel caught between the conflicting demands of passengers, operators and local authorities. If a driver refuses to carry a passenger without a mask they risk complaints to the local authority or the operator or both, which can lead to them losing their private hire licence, being removed from the operator’s books, or having their app deactivated. We encountered reports of local authority enforcement officers siding with passengers, even in situations where passengers were being abusive, and of drivers feeling that appeal procedures were obscure or inaccessible.

Addressing the high death rates among drivers requires a dramatic shift in the thinking of central and local government and of operators. These stakeholders must admit that they share responsibility for drivers’ wellbeing and to commit the necessary resources to upholding this responsibility. The risks that drivers have faced during the pandemic should also come as a warning to the rest of us, as many other jobs are shifting toward more individualised, flexible and responsibilised forms of work.

 

Tom Vickers is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University.

Image credit: Stephan Geyer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)