From pandemic heroes to underpaid workers, UK bus drivers revolt

When COVID-19 was raging, they received tokens of gratitude. Now, they are offered paltry pay rises as inflation soars.

Bus drivers
Striking bus drivers outside the Arriva North West office on Eastbank Street, Southport [Lorraine Mallinder/Al Jazeera]

Southport, UK – In Southport, an old seaside town in the northwest of England, bus drivers congregated under a bus stop.

They stood and chatted, one fiddled with a Rubik’s cube, and a couple held red flags, now three weeks into an acrimonious standoff with bus operator Arriva North West.

Suddenly, a motorbike screeched to a halt in front of them.

“Do you realise I’m on minimum wage too?” yelled the helmeted driver. “I’m the one paying for all this.”

After a heated exchange lasting about a minute, he sped off.

It was just another day on the picket line – sandwiched between the offices of Arriva, located right behind the bus stop, and the public.

And it is just another dispute, part of a wave of strikes threatening to paralyse the UK’s transport and telecoms networks, ports, hospitals and schools – each one distinctive, yet united by the nation’s current mood of discontent.

Initially, the protesters were wary, worried about visits from company moles but the tension gradually eased and soon everyone was talking.

The complaints are about paltry pay rises, deteriorating conditions, fat-cat executives and colossal corporate profits.

Arriva, a UK operator which runs more than 4,700 buses nationally, has large stakes in bus and rail services across Europe.

It receives local and national government subsidies and is owned by Deutsche Bahn, one of the world’s largest transport companies, which has forecast an operating profit of more than one billion euros ($1.02bn) for 2022 ­- a solid post-pandemic recovery as energy prices skyrocket.

As for the bus drivers, after years of minimal pay rises which failed to keep pace with inflation, now galloping towards 13 percent in early 2023, many have been forced to resort to state benefits to stay afloat.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the company showed gratitude by giving bus drivers a box of chocolates.

About the time they received the chocolates from Arriva’s front desk, their names ticked off a list to ensure nobody received more than one box, Arriva announced that it was scrapping two of its pension schemes, citing a deficit of 18 million pounds ($22m).

In this period of uncertainty, having risked their health to play a front-line role ferrying medical staff to hospitals when COVID-19 was raging, drivers with decades of service felt the rug had been pulled from under their feet.

According to workers, there was scant consultation or advice. Solutions that were eventually presented left workers feeling they had been short-changed.

Against this backdrop, the ill-judged gift of chocolates, which were a brand named Heroes, stung.

“It was cheap and patronising,” said John Larkin, 26. “Now workers are seeking to raise their pay, they are no longer ‘heroes’. We are viewed as feckless, work-shy, militant trade unionists.”

veteran driver
Simon Woolf, 57, a veteran driver, with nearly 30 years’ experience has seen conditions progressively deteriorate over the years [Lorraine Mallinder/AFP]

Drivers are demanding a 11.1-percent pay rise, which would bring their hourly rate to 15 pounds ($18). In the last round of negotiations before the strike, Arriva had offered a 3 percent rise or 6 percent accompanied by cuts to sick pay and weekend overtime rates. Workers turned down the offer, saying that the company was giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

At the time of writing, the company had made a revised offer of 9.6 percent, fully backdated to April. Workers are set to vote on Monday and Tuesday.

Ian Wilson, 64, who has been with Arriva for 35 years, says that he wants to ensure that youngsters coming into the industry get a square deal.

“It used to be a decent living wage,” he says. “It’s about treating employees fairly. We haven’t been treated fairly.”

During the strike, drivers receive funds from their union, but many are taking out loans or maxing out credit cards to make ends meet.

Larkin, a single father to a three-year-old son, worked nights as a bus driver while studying full-time for a degree in politics and criminology at Liverpool University.

Since graduating, he has been working day shifts, struggling to make ends meet.

“I don’t want to open the banking app because there’s always a red minus figure,” he said.

Last month, his account was frozen after he breached his overdraft limit.

With weekly wages amounting to 1,600 pounds ($1,930) a month, Larkin is unable to meet his outgoing spending of nearly 2,200 pounds ($2,655), covering rent, council tax, shopping and rising energy bills, without state benefits.

There are always extra expenses, like replacing his cracked mobile phone screen or his son’s broken bed.

“There’s no rainy-day fund,” he said.

“Because I’m struggling, I ask myself if I’m doing something wrong, letting my son down all the time. There’s a media narrative about benefits. I feel guilty that someone is subsidising my pay. I’m now the archetypal single parent claiming benefits. That’s my tag. That’s all I am now.”

Bus driver
John Larkin, 26, single parent of a three-year-old son, is struggling to make ends meet. ‘I don’t want to open the banking app because there’s always a red minus figure,’ he said [Lorraine Mallinder/Al Jazeera]

The irony of claiming government help to work full-time for an employer that is itself subsidised by UK taxpayers’ money is not lost on workers.

Even more absurdly, in their view, profits from their labour eventually find their way into the coffers of Deutsche Bahn’s sole shareholder, the German government.

Unite, the union representing 1,800 bus workers in the northwest, claims that Arriva’s UK bus division has paid 560m pounds ($676m) in dividends over the past 10 years.

Germany’s control over a key national asset operating as a private multinational company has had mixed results, earning it criticism at home.

However, the policy has made it possible to steer ambitious initiatives, such as a planned 13.6 billion-euro ($13.8bn) revamp of its rail network.

Meanwhile, the UK’s privatisation of bus services, deregulated everywhere but London since the mid 80s, has brought fare increases of 32 percent since 2010 and cuts in bus routes.

In this market, bus drivers have been pushed to the limit.

Simon Woolf, 57, a veteran driver, with nearly 30 years’ experience, has seen conditions progressively deteriorate.

Drivers are squeezed by ever-tighter timetables that do not allow time for proper lunch and toilet breaks, and they are constantly primed for checks by plain clothes inspectors.

And now, they are dealing with real-terms pay cuts.

“They’re stealing from you to pay you,” he said.

“If you don’t give them the power, they won’t treat you like that.”

An Arriva spokesman said he was unable to comment while current talks are ongoing.

Ian Wilson, 64, has been with Arriva
Ian Wilson, 64, has been with Arriva for 35 years. He wants to ensure that youngsters coming into the industry get a square deal. ‘It used to be a decent living wage,’ he says [Lorraine Mallinder/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera