Most European authorities want to force Uber, the ride-hailing app, to act more like a traditional taxi company. Drivers in Brussels fear the Belgian capital wants to shut them down entirely.
Fearing for their livelihoods, drivers are teaming up with the app — even as the two battle in court almost everywhere else in Europe.
On Thursday, Uber backed its drivers by removing taxi services from its app for a few hours in protest against what the app says is the Brussels government’s inaction to draw up legislation that could allow the app to function properly.
The move, a first for the company in Europe, is the latest response to a Brussels government decision banning Uber drivers from using the app — the company’s core product — to pick up and drop off customers, leaving both Uber and its drivers in purgatory. That ban, based on a 1995 law passed long before the existence of smartphones or apps, has been overwhelmingly criticized by Uber, its drivers and even members of government itself, and has prompted the government to promise incoming rules to regulate companies like Uber.
A draft plan was published late Wednesday in what many suspected was an attempt to stave off Thursday’s shutdown, but it will still take months before it comes becomes law.
“Reform is highly anticipated among drivers and the entire sector,” Uber said in a statement after the draft was sent out. “Everyone is looking forward to the full reform that has been promised by the government and that should improve mobility in Brussels. At this time, we haven’t seen a reform and we look forward doing so.”
Brussels authorities told drivers in March they are not allowed to use the location-based technology of a smartphone to arrange rides, effectively putting a stop to app-based taxi systems like Uber or French competitor Heetch. The drivers responded in force, with more than a thousand blocking the city’s main arteries in protest.
Brussels Minister-President Rudi Vervoort then promised to reform the taxi industry and present its plan before the summer, which was delayed.
With Brussels gradually reopening after months of lockdown, demand for Uber’s services has picked up again, frustrating drivers who are unsure if they’re breaking the law by hitting the road again. “Drivers are in the twilight zone,” said Uber’s head of Belgium, Laurent Slits, in an interview.
“We saw a dip in the number of active drivers,” during the pandemic, he said, but now, Brussels is “in need of more.”
“Drivers are returning to the platform at a healthy rate, but demand is growing faster than that.” Slits said while there are no disruptions for now, passengers might have to prepare themselves to wait longer for a car.
The government has warned drivers they will be punished for repeated infractions, but some say it’s also aware the law is anachronistic — one Brussels minister said the rule was “too crazy to be real” — and has looked the other way to allow drivers to meet increasing demand.
“On the one hand, there is the smartphone ban, but on the other hand they are told sometimes behind closed doors that they can keep on driving,” Slits said.
The Brussels government did not respond to a request for comment.
Fear for the future
The high demand for Uber drivers has made their legal situation more precarious. Nine out of 10 active Brussels Uber drivers “fear their future,” according to a survey done by the ride-hailing company in August. They want the government to act.
“How are you going to govern mobility in 2021, a sector that has completely changed in the last five to six years, with an ordnance drafted when GPS, apps, and smartphones did not exist?” Slits asked. “Reform is getting more and more pressing. Drivers don’t know what they can and cannot do, and more importantly, if they do or don’t have a future in Brussels.”
Another way to deal with shortages is just to offer drivers more, according to James Farrar, who leads a drivers’ union in the U.K. and is a frequent critic of the app. “If Uber increased the fares, there are plenty of drivers,” he said.
All this is good news for taxis, who are happy to fill in any space Uber might leave.
The Brussels Taxi Federation presented its own taxi plan in September, citing a shortage of 600 taxi drivers — and said it was happy to poach drivers currently working for Uber. “The big advantage is that we offer a solution to Uber drivers, so they can operate legally,” spokesperson Sam Bouchal said.
The plan released on Wednesday would effectively treat Uber like a taxi company, with some significant differences: Uber drivers wouldn’t be authorized to park on fixed parking spots for taxis, but the company can still use variable prices, unlike taxis. But it’s unclear how much of it will make it in the final law, as it hasn’t yet been presented in parliament.
Despite working together in Brussels, some drivers and Uber are yet to resolve longstanding issues over their employment status — another running battle in Belgium — but some are in sync with the company.
“We are self-employed, working on platforms like Uber and Heetch — and possibly Bolt in the future, as they’re interested,” Fernando Redondo, president of a Belgian federation of private drivers, told local press last week at a joint press conference with Uber.
It’s unclear how many drivers back Redondo.