Unite member Neil Muhammad would never have imagined that he would be earning £150 a week less than he did two decades ago for doing the same exact job.
And this figure doesn’t take into account inflation either.
This jaw-dropping fall in his wages he first noticed when he unearthed a wage slip he happened to keep when he just started as a London bus driver in 1999, with the now-defunct operator Connex UK.
He took a break from the job after several years and decided to return to it recently – this time working for a different company, one of among about a dozen bus firms now operating in the capital.
But his five years of experience in a stressful and highly complex role counted for nothing – he would start at the same level as someone who’s only just learning the ins and outs of driving the iconic London bus.
“Who can explain this, I thought,” Neil (pictured below) said. “It was mind-boggling.”
This wasn’t a mistake but business as usual for London bus operators, who have historically refused to recognise bus drivers’ years of service if they switched companies.
Whether you’ve worked 15 years or 5 minutes as a driver, if you started at any given bus company, you’d start on the same pay.
But now — thanks to a landmark deal brokered between Unite, TfL and the bus companies –this is all about to change.
London bus drivers joined Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and London Mayor Sadiq Khan today (January 17) at the launch of the ‘Licence for London,’ which will recognise bus drivers’ years of service and experience by maintaining their pay, terms and conditions if they change operators within the capital.
It marks a major step forward in ending the race to the bottom that’s plagued bus drivers in London for years – and follows another deal last year which established a minimum pay rate for drivers at £23,000 annually.
McCluskey and Khan together with bus drivers (pictured below) celebrated at the Merton Bus Garage – where the London Mayor’s father worked as a bus driver himself.
“This is about raising standards and rewarding people for their experience,” Khan told bus drivers. “This is a great example of trade unions working with TfL and bus operators to improve terms and conditions for drivers – and it also leads to a better service for passengers as well. So it’s a win-win. There’s no downside to this.”
McCluskey thanked Khan for the role he played in securing the Licence for London.
“This is a great example of a politician keeping to their promises – a Labour mayor delivering on the platform that he stood on,” he said.
“This city of ours is the greatest capital city in the world and one of the iconic images of this is the red bus,” McCluskey added, addressing the drivers. “You’re the ones who keep the veins of our city – the roads – flowing.”
“[The London Licence] is fantastic,” he went on to say. “It’s about treating workers with respect and dignity.”
“It ends this unfair farce and introduces minimum standards that will retain knowledge and expertise on London’s roads.
He agreed with Khan that the Licence benefits both passengers and workers and he added that it shows “what can be achieved when employers, politicians and trade unions work constructively together.”
No one is more hopeful about how the Licence will create a better future for he and his fellow bus drivers than Neil, whose wages have tumbled despite his years of experience.
“The licence is very important for maintaining wages and terms and conditions at a decent level,” he said. “What Len said today about a race to the bottom – my story pretty much says it all. Anything that helps to get us to a level where we can actually live and pay our rent and mortgages – that’s what we need.”
‘Right thing to do’
Unite member Natasha Smith (pictured below), who just started driving London buses 17 months ago, agreed. As a mother of five, she’d re-entered the workforce after caring for her children for many years.
“I love everything about being a bus driver – and I especially love interactions with passengers,” she said.
Natasha is a natural at her job and a credit to London bus drivers — in her first 16 months, she’d garnered 16 commendations.
But were it not for the London Licence, she could find herself in a position where she would have to give up her love of bus driving altogether, she says.
“I feel if I had all these years’ experience it would be a shame to move and lose all of that. It would definitely mean I would have to reconsider being a bus driver at all,” she said as she highlighted the struggles of supporting a large family.
Unite member Steve Riches (pictured below), a veteran bus driver with nearly 20 years’ experience and winner of a Bus Driver of the Year award in 2013, is among those who stood to lose out most from the previous system.
But now his level of expertise is valued and protected, no matter which London bus operator he chooses to work for.
“It’s only the right thing to do,” he said. “As you drive a bus over the years, you build up your seniority. And when you change company, you should be able transfer it to another company because you’ve earned that seniority.”
More work to do
Unite regional officer John Murphy explained the role Unite played in securing the London Licence.
“The London Licence wouldn’t have been achieved at all if it weren’t for Unite,” he said. “In 2015 we took action for the right to be negotiated with across the whole sector, which was instrumental in securing minimum rates of pay and the Licence we have today.”
“Now drivers will be able to move from one company to another and won’t have to start from the beginning,” Murphy added. “It’s a recognition of their service. It puts a brake on the race to the bottom.”
Still, there’s much more work left to do in support of London bus drivers whose roles are so central to the successful running of one of the world’s leading capital cities, Murphy noted.
“We still have this situation where there are huge pay differentials among the different London bus operators,” he explained, pointing to the fact that the top rate of pay across the sector can be as much as £8,000 more than the lowest rate – even among drivers with similar levels of experience driving similar routes.
“How can you justify two people doing the same job — effectively two bus drivers driving two buses on the same street – being paid at such grossly different levels? It’s not acceptable,” he said.
Unite is now working with the London Mayor to deliver on a campaign promise he made to rectify this situation, Murphy explained, which he said he said he has high hopes for — given Khan’s strong willingness to engage with trade unions compared to his predecessor Boris Johnson, who would often refuse to talk to them.
Unite is also campaigning on other issues important to bus drivers such as health and safety, as well as diversity and equalities.
It is this work that Unite is doing on behalf of bus drivers that prompted Natasha to urge everyone to join a union.
“If anything happens, you know you’ve got backup, you’ve got an advocate; you’ve got that support network,” she said. “It’s like being in a family – the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts.”
- Pics by Mark Thomas