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London’s Lowest Paid Bus Drivers Are Fighting Back

Taj Ali

Hundreds of bus drivers in West London are on strike over a real-terms pay cut and attacks on their terms and conditions. The dispute encapsulates how privatisation has wrecked a vital public service.

Bus drivers employed by London’s Lowest Paid Bus Drivers Are Fighting Back stand on a picket line outside Westbourne Park Garage, London.

In the run-up to the 1992 General Election, the BBC filmed a documentary following the trials and tribulations of bus drivers at one of London’s largest bus garages, Westbourne Park in Notting Hill. Drivers were incensed by Tory proposals to privatise London’s buses. George Rhoden, an official of the Transport and General Workers Union, the predecessor to Unite, argued that the proposals would lead to misery for London bus drivers and passengers. Private operators, he warned, were ‘only in the business to make money’ and would cut corners at every turn. 

Thirty-one years on, on a cold December morning, there is a loud and angry picket line outside Westbourne Park Garage. The bus operator imposing a real-terms pay cut on hundreds of bus drivers and engineers is French-owned RATP London Transit. A decade ago, it was Tower Transit, a subsidiary of Australian-owned Transit Systems. Before that it was FirstGroup. 

Privatisation promised competition and innovation, but what has emerged is an oligopoly of private firms screwing over workers and passengers at home while extracting profits for shareholders abroad. Many communities, particularly rural ones, have seen routes cuts and fares balloon. While London has successfully avoided deregulation (and retained the power to set fares, routes and timetables), it was still made to privatise its buses. 

‘There’s only a handful of drivers left that have half the privileges I’ve got,’ says Leon. He’s on a contract that precedes the privatisation of the ’90s, enjoying a better pension, better overtime rates, and better sick pay. But most of his colleagues are much worse off. Privatisation in 1994 kickstarted a race to the bottom. Private operators eroded terms and conditions as they competed for routes. The end result, for new grades, is low pay and worsening conditions. 

‘I’m entitled to six months’ full sick pay and three months’ half pay but the terms and conditions of my colleagues have been eroded so they don’t get the same sick pay,’ explains Leon. ‘I retire in about five years. They will never get anywhere close to what I will get for my pension.’ While Leon enjoys a 33 percent bonus for unsociable hours, most drivers, on newer contracts, get just 10 percent. 

‘Privatisation is for one thing and one thing only profit,’ says Simon, another bus driver at Westbourne garage. ‘Screw the lower boys as long as the shareholders are getting paid. For us drivers, they give with one hand and take with the other.’ Simon believes the service is being run on the cheap to maximise profits for the private operators. ‘When I’m in a cab, I like to know that when I need heat in the freezing cold, I’ve got heat. When it’s hot, I know the need to know that I’ve got cool air. Not all the buses are like that. I’m often freezing cold in my bus, shaking.’ 

Leon fears the company is deliberately trying to push out legacy drivers like him on the old TfL contracts. Stood next to him is Muhammad, a bus driver who has worked at this garage for decades. Muhammad suffered long Covid for over a year. When he returned to work, the company tried to get him on a new contract with worse terms and conditions. 

‘I had a medical condition. When they found my sickness was serious, they said take some leave to look after your health. I came back within the time limit and rejoined. They dismissed my twenty-one years of experience and said I was only there for one year.’ Leon says there is a consistent effort on the part of RATP to water down terms and conditions. ‘My contract says to work between five to seven days a week. They started making drivers work nine days in a row which I refused to do.’ 

While Muhammad has recovered from long Covid and successfully won back his terms and conditions, others have been less fortunate. London bus drivers were three times more likely to die from Covid during the height of the pandemic. Many of Muhammad’s colleagues lost their lives. ‘I was a hero in the pandemic,’ says Simon. ‘But now I’ve asked for a few pennies to show your appreciation of me, you can’t give me that.’ 

Crisis and Dispute

More than 350 West London bus drivers and engineers are currently in dispute with RATP London Transit. The workers are on strike after rejecting a 6.8 percent pay rise. The company later offered an additional one-off £800 payment — a concession that drivers here feel goes nowhere near far enough. 

Anwar is new to the company, having joined in March, but he’s been driving buses in London for over twenty years.We are some of the lowest paid bus drivers in the whole of London,’ he says. ‘The lump sum means nothing. Where does a one-off payment leave us throughout the year? The taxman is going to take half of it. We want an increase in our hourly pay.’ Drivers at this garage, he says, do the busiest routes into central London, but the company fails to recognise and reward them for it. 

A spokesperson for RATP London Transit maintains that the company have made a ‘competitive and fair offer’, aligned with their commitment ‘to protect drivers and engineers from inflation and reward their efforts.’ The company also maintains that it has reviewed the union’s demands with regard to terms and conditions and have put forward proposals which they believe ‘should be satisfactory to all parties.’ 

Unite the Union says the offer amounts to a real-terms pay cut as the real rate of inflation, RPI, stood at 11.4 percent when the pay increase was supposed to be applied in April. Willie Howard, an organiser with Unite the Union, says that for drivers with a pay anniversary in April, this is the lowest offer in London, highlighting how bus drivers in neighbouring garages have received pay offers of 8 percent and above. 

Are the other operators somehow exempt from the pressures RATP claims to face? The reality is that RATP are attempting to take liberties with a garage they perceive as being isolated. There’s no reason why the men and women who keep London moving every day should suffer huge erosions to their quality of life because of the considerations of a French multinational’s profits.’ 

My rent has gone up three times this year,’ says Anwar. ‘Electricity price has gone up. Even the bus fare has gone up three times this year. So if the fares are going up at this rate, why aren’t our wages?’ 

‘I need to be able to look after my family and pay my bills,’ says Simon. ‘I believe we are getting screwed over. All of us bus drivers should be on the same pay as we work in the same zone. But others are getting paid more than us. It just doesn’t make sense.’ 

Skyrocketing inflation has had an impact and though it might be falling, prices have risen by 16 percent in two years and food bills by 28 percent. Many are feeling the pinch. 

‘In January, we’re going to get his by another gas and electricity hike. It’s going to be £94 extra,’ says Sara, a bus driver for over twenty-one years. ‘We’re not asking to be rich. We’re asking to pay our bills and provide for our families.’ 

Increasing resentment at the company is the fact that it takes workers seven years to reach the full rate of pay, even though at most other bus companies it only takes three years of service. ‘They pay the shareholders but where’s our share?’, asks Anwar. ‘We are treated the worst but it’s because of us the company is running. We are the bread and butter of the company.’ 

The dispute is also over the company’s attempt to reduce terms and conditions, including removing a longstanding £500 meal relief payment and attacking arrangements for how workers take days off in lieu. 

Sara says the company lacks an appreciation for the multiple roles bus drivers have. ‘On the railways, they have gateline staff, customer service managers, signallers. We have to worry about traffic, lorries hitting us, bikes, scooters, old people crossing the road, families with young children. It’s difficult.’ 

Dealing with difficult passengers is also a constant struggle. ‘We do our best to keep passengers happy, but we deal with a lot of abuse too. “Why are you late? We’ve been waiting half an hour!”’ In public-facing roles, it is bus drivers who face the backlash when things go wrong. Bus drivers, says Sara, are increasingly monitored and assessed by TfL inspectors too. ‘You get a low score for not smiling. For not talking to someone. And you have to answer for it. The customers can rank you. It’s a lot of pressure.’ 

Public transport is one of the most integral parts of London. Without it, the city would quite literally grind to a halt. That vital role that these bus workers play in the smooth running of the city is being recognised on the picket line today as passing vehicles beep in support.  

Under privatisation, decent pay and conditions are tossed aside as operators seek to keep labour costs low. This may provide a competitive advantage over other operators as they compete over contracts but it is wrecking a vital service that so many rely on and destroying the livelihoods of workers in the process. Until the current system is upended and the profit motive is taken out, such disputes will remain frequent. In the meantime, trade unions will continue to push back against privatisation’s worst excesses.