Caroline Pidgeon: Covid-19 crisis has highlighted poor treatment of London bus drivers

Caroline Pidgeon: Covid-19 crisis has highlighted poor treatment of London bus drivers

Any article about Covid-19 must start with the caveat “at the time of writing”. No statistics or details about its brutal effects are the same two days in a row. Even so, it is clear that a full  examination of its impacts on London’s bus drivers is needed. We know that least 29 transport workers in London have died from Covid-19, of which 23 were bus drivers or bus workers. The final figure will surely be higher. There are 25,000 bus drivers in London, suggesting that the death rate from Covid-19 could be disproportionately hitting this group of workers. We need to know why.

It will take some time to fully understand the varying death rates from Covid-19 among different communities and sections of the workforce. The cry has been made in anger – and righteous anger is no bad thing – that more could have been done to improve bus driver safety and to save lives. Some of that has been directed at the Mayor, yet bus drivers are employed by bus companies rather than by Transport for London, so their actions need to be looked at too. Why is it, for example, that TfL has, rather than their employers, has been bulk-purchasing hand sanitiser for bus drivers’ use?

It may be that recent measures to improve the safety of bus drivers – and passengers – should have been introduced more quickly, and it could be that further measures will be needed, including issuing drivers with personal protective equipment. But if we are to make permanent progress, we must examine all the evidence and not just assume that every Covid-19 death has been caused by interactions between drivers and passengers.

Specific factors about drivers’ working lives outside buses themselves could be contributing to their susceptibility. Conditions at bus depots need to be examined. Incredibly, only now are we finally ensuring that drivers have access to toilets and hand washing facilities on all bus routes. We also need to explore why many bus drivers have, in the past, felt the need to come into work even when feeling unwell. The fact that many of them travel long distances each day before beginning their shifts should also be considered. Many simply can’t afford to live closer to their depots. Why are they so poorly paid?

For too long the bus industry has been allowed to treat its employees in ways that would not be acceptable in other industries. From 2009, TfL expected the London Living Wage to be paid to all staff working on the London bus network, and began including this condition in its contracts with the bus companies. But eight years later it was suddenly ‘”discovered” that these terms were not being applied to trainee drivers.

That eight years of non-compliance also says a great deal about TfL’s historic light touch when it comes to the terms of contracts with bus companies. The theory that moves by senior bus industry figures into to senior TfL management positions has created too cosy a regulatory relationship should not be quickly dismissed.

Thankfully, fatigue among bus drivers – a widespread problem that can put drivers and other road-users at risk –  is now starting to be taken seriously, following powerful evidence collected by Loughborough University transport safety research group, funded by TfL. Yet senior bus industry figures must surely have been aware of this problem for years. The only other possible explanation is ignorance of it. Neither is attractive.

More recently the Mayor announced a package of support to improve job retention in the bus industry, involving payments of up to £1,600. But surely it is the bus companies that should be addressing low levels of pay. The Labour Party has a record of highlighting the high bus company profits. So why is a Labour Mayor using taxpayers’ money to improve their employees wages?

We need to know why so many bus drivers have recently died in London from Covid-19. We also need to ensure that every safety policy is being properly enforced on every bus and at every depot. If we are really concerned about the safety of bus drivers we need to look at the bigger picture – starting with the bus companies.

Caroline Pidgeon is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member. Follow her on Twitter.

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Categories: Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sue Coy says:

    I have just come across this article, and thank you Caroline for highlighting some of the issues surrounding the working conditions of London Bus Drivers.
    I work for a bus operator in North London and unfortunately the improvements that were supposed to be implemented several years ago to safeguard our health and wellbeing (thereby improving the safety of our passengers and other road users as we drive through the streets of the Capital) have not materialised.
    We do not have access to toilets at every terminus, so no facilities to wash our hands; and even if there are toilets, we often have to pay or simply don’t have time to use them without making the bus late.
    Last night, for example, I deliberately did not have a drink during my meal break because I knew I would probably not have a chance to use a toilet for the rest of the evening. I started driving my bus at 1910 and did not arrive back at the depot until 0040 – 5 hours and 30 minutes of highly focussed driving while I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable, fatigued and thirsty. This is a normal dilemma for bus drivers, but obviously detrimental to our health and concentration.
    Politicians make promises that are never fulfilled once they look at the cost of fulfilling them.
    We also know, every day, that some of our passengers are almost certainly carrying the virus, and although there is now a 2 metre area around our cab that they cannot enter, we still have to leave the relative safety of that zone to walk through the bus and check for lost property and for people who have fallen asleep or are unwell. We are issued with hand sanitiser, but as the virus can remain in droplet form in the air around us, we are at risk continuously just by breathing. Anxiety and stress levels among my colleagues are justifiably very high.
    The buses are now getting busy again because people have been told to return to work, and most have no alternative but to use public transport to travel into London. TfL, however, are still running a reduced service because they had little warning that demand was about to change.
    We are not well paid. For my 9 hour late evening shift yesterday I will receive – BEFORE stoppages – less than £100. Additionally, many of us did not qualify for the Bus Driver Retention Scheme and so did not, and will not ever, receive it.
    But this is my job – my reality – so I will go out this evening, and tomorrow, and the day after, and do it all again.
    How safe do you feel sharing the road with me now?

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