Diary of a London Bus Driver

How does ‘capitalism’ affect bus drivers?

Ajay's rant | Diary of a London Bus Driver

Capitalism to an economist means a mechanism of wealth creation and distribution, whereas a layman’s interpretation of the word is how the workers in this world get ‘screwed’ by the rich employers – strange, eh? Or is it just a strange case of Homographs?

The London Bus drivers are an unusual breed. The workers in this industry come from a vastly different range of backgrounds. Some have been in this industry since they left school, which could have been 30 years ago and many, have more recently, come from several other professions in the recent years, as job markets have changed with recession in our economy leading to redundancies in many sectors. The privatisation of the bus industry and much of the transport sector had opened many lucrative opportunities for individuals with the right business approach, because of the huge subsidies and opportunities to return massive profits for their shareholders. The controls and monitoring of performance of the privatised industry were poor for almost the first 20-25 years, leading to most profits made by such companies in this period. Hence we saw the proliferation of many European companies enter the UK transport sector because of the huge potential profit margins with little control. While the economy was strong and companies made eye-watering profits, the workers were also enjoying above-average wages and reaping rewards of a newly privatised industry in its infancy, while the darker forces of capitalism slowly gathered force.

Slightly tighter controls by the public bodies like TfL (Transport For London) and use of technology to monitor the performances of these privatised companies began to take place in the mid-noughties and they suddenly, began to feel the mild squeeze on their, earlier easily derived, profits. The bosses could not suddenly let their life-styles suffer. Hence, came the onslaught on workers’ terms and conditions and pay scales. With pretty blatant collusion with the unions, the old pay structures were slashed and new terms and conditions imposed on drivers and an ever increasing pressure on established drivers with implied fear of job loss if they fail to comply, despite the fact the employers needed these drivers to keep the services running. The recent recession had provided the employers with an endless stream of new applicants willing to do the job despite the increasing imbalance between the working hours/pay/terms. The older established drivers fear losing their jobs for the slightest misdemeanour, because of increasingly punitive approach by company managers, who are under increasing pressure from the bosses due to their own amended work contracts. The companies try to extract every extra minute out of the drivers that the extremities of the ‘Driving Hours’ law provides them, with no regard to health and safety of the employees.

Direct impact on drivers

  • Many drivers are now doing over 37% more hours, at times, to earn the same daily pay as in 2010
  • Drivers are being given less travel time between destinations (garage and route terminus) to start and finish off their ‘profitable’ part of the duty
  • Drivers are given less preparation time from the first sign-on time to start their duty and also less time (sometime none) to start the second part of their duty after their meal-relief (lunch time to the non-initiated)
  • Duties starting at unusually early hours, like 3 am or 4 am used to be shorter jobs to offer drivers more rest time. This is no longer the case. You could still be expected to work for 10-11 hours, despite starting your day at 3 am or 4 am. Imagine the impact of this on your concentration and health after 3-4 days of such duty.
  • Annual pay-rise are hard to come-by, and a real struggle to extract out of the companies.
  • Sickness pay, unsocial hours work, extra day work (rest day work), Sunday rates have all been cut to the bone or no longer available.

 

Drivers are their own worst enemy!

  • Drivers do not help their own cause by, unknowingly, offering additional services to the employers which make their wage bill much lower than it should be.
  • Drivers coming to work early (sometimes even 2-3 hours) offer their employers an army of unpaid workers to call upon if another driver is delayed or unable to make it to work, as these early arrivals will happily take on the other duty just so that they can finish a bit early. Such ‘stand-by’ drivers would otherwise need to be arranged by the company at additional cost.
  • A driver, agreeing to do additional rest days at the same rate as any other day in the week means they are offering the company extra employees at no additional cost. Drivers also fail to recognise the adverse health effects of such long shifts over sustained periods of time doing this job.
  • A blatant case of drivers not recognising their own strength has been when they fail to support their own unions, on rare occasions, when they have called a strike to fight against these attempts to drive down wages by the employers (in return for measly incentives offered by the employers).

 

Unions are nowhere to be seen while this onslaught is causing a severe deterioration in the job pay and conditions of all bus drivers across the capital.  This is the epitome of the dark side of Capitalism, when profit making takes a higher position than anything else – including health and well-being of the workers, and also, indirectly, the business customers.  Without being an alarmist – Imagine what a tired and frustrated bus driver can end up doing!

The London Bus Drivers’ Strike

Diary of a London Bus Driver

I have been following various blogs and news websites where the public have left comments in the most talked about strike by the workers of a London public service.

It is sad to see that many see this only as ‘bus drivers being greedy’.  Many comments seem to follow the thinking that the drivers are asking for a payment for something which should be their ‘normal work related duties’.  Ignorance about what has been happening in this industry can lead people to form this opinion, I understand that.  Just the way, I also understand that this has been happening to ordinary workers across the board – in public services, government/council offices where people’s well established pay structures and benefit systems and pensions are being attacked and cut back.  All this while the rich are getting richer even in this environment of cut-backs and ‘austerity’.

Bus drivers, across London, are now working much longer hours with shorter breaks than they were only 12 months ago and fewer basic facilities (like toilets and canteens!) – where is HSE (Health & Safety Executive)?   Their pay structures are being altered significantly with new drivers being paid very low salaries and no scope of this increasing for the first 3-5 years. The older, established drivers live under constant fear that the most minor or insignificant misdemeanours are being used as an excuse to terminate their employment, all because they are deemed to be a stumbling block in raising company profits. Sick pay and holiday structures are being altered to favour the employers.  The Unions have colluded with the employers and dupe the drivers – many of whom seem to have a blind faith in their Union representatives – to get these practices and changes enshrined into the new ‘terms and conditions’ of employment.

These attacks on driver conditions have led to a more disgruntled workforce and reduced loyalty towards their employers.  This has also led to the emergence of new unions who seem to offer an alternative to the monopoly of the one Union which has claimed to be ‘representing’ the London Bus Drivers for years!  It is this development, I believe, which has led Unite (oops! I let the name out.) to take a stand to ’show’ the drivers that the Union stands behind them, in asking for the “Olympic Bonus”, although it has been silent  for the last year while the pay and work conditions of Drivers have been under attack by almost all operating companies in London.  The drivers have no option, but to go along with this strike call, because they see this as their only opportunity to get heard and get something back after years of pay-freeze and reduced pay and benefits – all this while the operating companies’ owners are seeing their personal income and company profits rise even in these times.

More later, but please show some sympathy, although it is appreciated that such strike actions do cause significant discomfort to the public which uses the bus services on a daily basis.  The walkout in November last year by over 2 million public service workers was for the same moral reason!

Customer Service – Be Polite or Give Abuse?

Diary of a London Bus Driver

This is only a bit of fiction on my part, but I guess that the current level of Customer Services grew out of the old ‘Code Of Practice’ and ‘Customer Charter’, which were introduced in public service organisations like the Police where the abuse of power by a small minority (possibly institutionalised!) led to public outcry and protests by the activists on behalf of the suffering public in the 1940s and 1950s.  And right it was too!  Such pretence became effective and the practice was used more and more to appease the public and to create a more public friendly face of the police and other law enforcing agencies and furthermore, public offices and government departments.  The PR gurus of the corporate world then thought of utilising such tactics to make their organisation more ‘customer friendly’ and attract more customers with hollow promises and, sometimes, baseless unproven claims.  All this backfired when the legal claims from customers started pouring in (1980s and 1990s)as many such promises could never have been delivered.

The corporates in this day and age are now unable to turn the clock back and have to continue with  an offering of ‘Customer Services’ to the public which causes the front line staff to have to bear most of the consequences…

I am sure you know of people who would buy an item of clothing to wear to a specific occasion and then return it to the shop after the big day has passed or ladies going to return a pair of expensive shoes after having broken the heels during the chase after a drunken party (not admitted to the shop owner/manager) and many such similar examples can be cited… Why should the shop manager have to take the heat for stupid company policies! So they just agree with the customer and possible write the stock off! In the field of public services like hospital staff, transport, council office staff, etc. the situation can be much worse for the public facing staff.  A slight bit of discomfort to the member of public caused by the actions of a member of staff, irrespective of the customer’s behaviour being acceptable or not, can lead to violence against the member of staff.  Admittedly, there is a small percentage of the population who will resort to violence, but that is still a significantly high number as the people working in such sectors will verify.  They are subjected to such unacceptable acts on a daily basis.  The staff have to be on their guard at all times and be ready to act if such a situation were to arise.  They become experts at reading human behaviour, with daily occurrence and interaction with the members of public, some polite and an unacceptable percentage at the other extreme.  One can be highly professional at their approach to their job, but daily taunts and remarks and public behaviour towards your work can gradually take its toll and affect your performance and make you extremely edgy and react to a situation in a way you would not have otherwise.  The bosses and management in their offices do not recognise this and only want to go by the rule book if the employee is brought in front of them after a complaint from the member of public.  The complaint, obviously, would not include details of the verbal abuse the customer may have subjected the employee to before the situation got out of hand.

Such scenarios present the conundrum – should a member of staff in a customer facing role offering public services be expected to be professional at all times or be expected to protect their self-respect and give abuse back to the member of public who seem to have forgotten that they have duties to perform if they wish for their rights to be respected.

Why don’t the bus drivers smile?

Diary of a London Bus Driver

I have come across reader’s letters and editorials in many magazines and tabloids asking this question.

Oh yes, they do! When they are new to the job! Like most humans, drivers want to please their customers and peers, when they start a new job, but it soon wears off.  After the driver has been threatened by 12 year olds, spat at by 10 year olds and sworn at by 65 year old women, racially abused by anyone who’s having a bad day, they learn to ignore the public.

In any other job, if you are being abused by a customer, there will be a team of people around to protect you and support you, but NOT in this job. You are an easy target and, rarely, will anyone step forward to back you up; not even the police.  the police is as ineffective in tackling this menace as the TfL despite all these big promises about protecting ‘their’ staff and pushing for the hardest penalties for the perpetrators, which is all just a good PR exercise.

Generally, the trouble only occurs when a driver challenges a passenger’s ticket or asks them for one if they have forgotten to present it. The genuine mistakes are resolved with a smile from the passenger and a ’sorry I forgot’, but the habitual fare evader is ready for a fight immediately.  There is no process in place to eliminate such regular occurrences: not even the ‘Revenue Officials’. TfL have this team of people who board the buses randomly and, supposedly, check that all passengers are travelling with a valid ticket.  It is hard to find these teams in the notorious East London routes and when you DO come across one, it is amazing how quickly they can check a full bus, sometimes without even climbing to the upper deck on a double decker.  They are equally aware of the menace and want to stay clear of any trouble!

In light of the above facts relevant to every day in the working life of a London bus driver, is it a surprise that not many of them smile to the public?

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