In the latest instalment of our What a way to make a living series, Mitch Mitchell reports on his experiences driving minicabs over the decades, considering how the challenges of taxi driving have changed – or, in some ways, stayed very similar.
I have driven minicabs three times in my life. The first time was in 1979 when the London evening papers and some of the local press were full of ads to become a cab driver.
The ads promised the chance to earn up to £500 per week, which in today’s money is a little over £2,800 (although £500 would still be considered reasonable). However, I soon found that the only way to earn that sort of money was to either work seven days a week, around 14 or 15 hours per day, or ‘straighten up’ the controller who was the guy (I never encountered a woman doing that job) who gave out the work.
The first company I worked for was Addison Lee, who are now huge, but back in the 1970s were just beginning to grow. These days, I believe most of their drivers use company-owned vehicles, but back then you had to use your own car. You were responsible for your own petrol, had to pay ‘rent’ to the company, and had to get hire and reward insurance, which was very expensive. Some workers tried to do the work without the required insurance, but if caught, would be subject to very high fines, driving bans and possibly prison.
If, like me, you worked an eight-hour shift, you were, after all the outgoings, left with very little, if anything at all – the suggested £500 per week became an impossible dream.
The bulk of the work was with account customers, who enjoyed a lower rate of charge, so the work was unrewarding. Any money due on account was subject to rent deduction. For this reason, I left Addison Lee and went to work for a small local company, which was all cash work and only had three drivers on the daytime shift. This paid better and I was making a profit of between £50-75 per week.
The next occasion was in the mid-1980s. I had been working as a residential social worker in a project in Forest Hill, but the director was caught for fraud and the place closed.
This time I went for a medium-sized local outfit called South London Group (SLG). Their work was a mix of cash and account. However, here it seemed you definitely had to be on the right side of the controller to make it pay.
On this occasion, I drove one of their company cars, for which I paid a lot of money, but that did include the insurance. I met some interesting passengers while working for them, including Harry Carpenter, BBC’s boxing commentator, and we had a long chat about boxers of the 1950s as I drove him to a reception at the Dorchester.
The company liked to squeeze everything out of their drivers. I recall being too unwell to drive once, and when I phoned to let them know, I was met with ‘Can’t you take a pill?’
The third time was in the 1990s. I was again ‘between jobs’ and went to a City-based outfit called West One. Apparently, Damon Hill had been one of their motorbike messengers before he followed his dad and became world motor racing champion.
It was totally account work, but they had a policy that if you achieved £200+ of account work, you paid no rent for the next week. I made this target once!
They had some really good accounts, including the Morning Star and the Campaign For Racial Equality. The first job I had with them was to pick up Sarah, later Mrs. Gordon Brown, and Julia Hobsbawm who shared a house near the Elephant & Castle. They were genuinely amazed that a cab driver had a copy of the Guardian in the car, and even more so when I offered them a look at that week’s Socialist Worker.
That was my last foray into minicabbing. The work was awful, you were on your own as far as holidays or time off was concerned, and despite promises to the contrary, you had to work your full shift and then some. This means that many of the minicabs on the streets are driven by people who are either dangerously tired or dangerously drugged to stay awake.
The advent of Uber has pushed the sort of cab firms I worked for into the background somewhat. However, saying that, their licence to operate in London is currently under review by Transport for London. This is largely due to pressure from the (unionised) black cabs who hate both minicabs and Uber with a passion.
In recent years, there have been some high-profile court cases surrounding jobs which require the worker to be registered as self-employed. Pimlico Plumbing was one such where the court found in favour of the workers and they were forced to pay holiday money and sick pay. I hope that this will improve the job for these workers, but all in all, it is not a job I would recommend unless you have 1) no life outside of work and are prepared to work all hours, or 2) you know a good dealer of amphetamines who isn’t too expensive.