After the Belgian capital banned Uber drivers from using their smartphones back in March, turning a cold war between the city’s leadership and the American-based rideshare company hot, protests from drivers prompted Brussels to promise reform for the taxi sector before summer.
Now, with the warmest months in the rearview mirror, Uber drivers who kept operating as usual are discovering fines in their mailboxes, and reform nowhere in sight.
“Let’s not beat around the bush - we’ve got nowhere,” Laurent Slits, head of Uber for Belgium, told The Brussels Times.
“In the meantime we have more than two thousand drivers and their families who are still being kept in a very difficult, stressful situation.”
The smartphone ban took effect in March this year, taking Uber drivers - who rely on their smartphones in order to complete trips on the digital platform - by surprise and prompting a series of protests.
The ban refers to a 1995 law involving “radio communication devices,” but supporters make it clear that it was never really about the phones.
Their primary reason for rendering the rideshare service all but unable to operate in Brussels is because they feel its business model – in which employees are contractors without benefits, guaranteed wages, or protections against market saturation – is unethical and antithetical to Belgian standards for employers.
Slits says that Uber isn’t against business regulations, despite the fact that they’ve spent millions of dollars fighting such efforts in multiple countries, including the UK.
“Our activity needs to be regulated,” said Slits, “but in a clear, modern fashion so that we can leave court cases behind and can focus on providing the best services for riders and the drivers who use our app.”
Uber isn’t the only one left waiting. Taxi drivers were to be included in any reform of the sector, and the United Freelancers Union (UF/CSC) is also wondering when a draft will ever see the light of day.
“There was a sign at the end of June that something was going to come, and then in the end it didn't,” Martin Willems, union secretary CSC, told The Brussels Times.
“We don't know why it didn't happen, but naturally, the issue isn’t so simple.”
The purpose of any Taxi Plan from Brussels is to make clear rules that will be applicable to both official taxi drivers and Uber drivers, but many questions have still to be answered.
The first of those, said Willems, is whether or not there will be a limit on the total number of drivers.
“Certainly we at CSC think there’s enough space in the market for more than only the current official taxi drivers, but we stand for limits,” Willems said. “Uber doesn’t want that. They want anybody who wants to be a transportation driver to be one. We don't share this opinion.”
A level playing field
The second matter, he says, is what to do about the current licencing scheme for official taxi drivers.
In Brussels, as is the case in many major cities, licences to drive a taxi are limited and costly: upwards of €60,000 today, and as much as €100,000 during a speculation craze several years ago.
“If now we say, okay, a number of Uber drivers can also transport people, but without having to purchase licences, there should be a form of compensation for the official taxi drivers who paid for them,” said Willems. “That will cost quite a bit for the region.”
The union also wants a level playing field, meaning all drivers operating in Brussels abide by the same set of rules.
“There are a couple of differences between official taxi drivers and Uber drivers,” explained Willems.
“One of those differences is insurance. Taxi drivers have to take professional insurance. The normal insurance for car drivers is not sufficient, because you're driving professionally. To protect your consumers, you need special insurance.”
That special insurance can cost four times the amount a regular car owner would pay, says Willems, and most Uber drivers don’t have it, leaving their riders potentially at risk in the event of an accident.
Another difference is that official Brussels taxi drivers must pass an annual medical exam each year to ensure they’re fit for transporting passengers. This obligation doesn’t apply to Uber drivers.
“Maybe you think a medical exam is too much, it’s not necessary,” said Willems. “But then it should also not be necessary for taxi drivers. Or if you think it is necessary to protect the rider, then in that case it should apply to Uber.”
In other words, the union wants the same rules for everybody who professionally transports passengers in Brussels - that, and fair ride pricing that will allow drivers to make a living, regardless of whether they’re doing Uber part time or full time.
“Whether you do five hours a week or 60, that doesn’t matter. For each hour you work, you should earn a decent wage and have access to social rights. It’s not because the work is complementary that you don't need a decent hourly wage and decent rights.”
The European Parliament seems to agree. They recently voted to adopt the recommendations of a report calling for more rights for platform workers, but some see regulation as a threat to innovation, especially when it comes to what’s happening with Uber in Brussels.
“The situation in Brussels is absurd and very problematic for our members,” said Florian Steuerer of MoveEU, a Brussels-based association of On-Demand Mobility that says its mission is to rethink transport and transition to more shared modes.
Those members include Bolt, FreeNow and Uber.
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While Uber is the only one operating in Brussels at the moment, MoveEU says they’re all following the situation in the Belgian capital, and that the push for more stringent regulations there is worrisome.
“They're not very innovation friendly; we’ve seen similar developments in other cities and they’re concerning to us,” said Steuerer, who points to Eastern Europe as a model for the types of progress MoveEU would like to see.
“In Croatia, they removed caps on the number of licences. In Slovenia, they allowed taxi drivers to use mobile applications instead of the traditional taxi meters in cars. In Austria, they removed the return-to-garage rule.”
MoveEU says these sorts of actions make it easier for both drivers and passengers to get around, and that countries on the western side of Europe are getting it all backwards with some of the rules they’re implementing.
“Around the corner in Luxembourg, the new rule would foresee a one-hour waiting time, which is incredibly counterintuitive for both the driver and the passenger,” Steuerer said.
“These rules are often really burdensome for all involved.”
Among those encumbering rules is the cell phone ban in Brussels.
Cooperation rather than exclusion
Right now, Uber drivers face fines of up to €200 if they operate in the capital, in violation of that ban.
“At first it was informal warnings, then it became formal warnings, then drivers started getting letters at home that required them to go to hearings at Brussels Mobility, and then the fines started coming,” said Uber’s Slits.
“Drivers are incredibly stressed. They go to work without knowing if they’re going to be stopped by the agents of Brussels Mobility and, most importantly, if their situation will ever be clarified.”
In early March, Brussels Minister President Rudi Vervoort said “we’ll try to find a sustainable solution as soon as possible.”
According to Vervoort, Uber is abusing existing legislation by classifying itself as a limousine service in order to get around many of the rules that apply to taxis.
He said that new taxi legislation with input from taxi services, Uber, and Heetch (a French-based ride hailing app) would be drafted before the arrival of summer.
“The Brussels Government created false hope,” Slits said.
“They promised they would get reform, they said they made progress for the reform, and then summer came and everyone went on holidays except drivers, and we still have nothing.”
The effective banning of Uber in Brussels has angered more than just the drivers - residents of a city that’s increasingly and deliberately limiting the use of private cars are frustrated that a major mode of transport is being taken off the table for them.
Over 1,200 residents of the city signed a petition calling for Uber to be allowed to operate freely, citing its safety features (riders can share their trip details with friends and family, including the car’s make, model and license plate number) and the convenience as primary motivators.
“Brussels, open the door to modernity and digitalisation,” the petition reads. “There is no valid and digital alternative to the platform in Brussels at the moment. Brussels is the capital of Europe, we all use a smartphone, why are we still waiting for this update?”
The union isn't giving up hope yet, though they're disappointed by the lack of progress.
“The situation is problematic for Uber drivers who don't know if they can or cannot drive, and for consumers because taxi transportation is very important for a city like Brussels, and so it must be settled," Willems said.
“It must be settled as soon as possible and we hope the authorities are taking into account all the aspects of this fight.”
Minister President Rudi Vervoort’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.