‘The last resort’: Uber brings Brussels taxi matter before Council of State

‘The last resort’: Uber brings Brussels taxi matter before Council of State
A traditional taxi cab in downtown Antwerp. Photo by Helen Lyons/The Brussels Times

After multiple protests from both Uber drivers and traditional taxi drivers over the implementation of Brussels’ emergency legislation intended to compromise between the two, Uber is bringing the matter before Belgium’s Council of State.

“We’re asking the Council of State to clarify how the ordinance is meant to be interpreted,” Laurent Slits, Head of Belgium at Uber, told The Brussels Times.

“The current difference between what parliament promised in December – aiming to save the livelihoods of some 2,000 drivers – and how the government is now applying the rules is causing great uncertainty.”

Uber drivers were told they would be allowed to keep operating in Brussels under the emergency legislation provided they met a number of conditions. But while none of those conditions included having an LVC (license for chauffeurs) from the Brussels-Capital Region, drivers with ones from Flanders and Wallonia were forbidden from operating in the capital and eight have had their vehicles impounded.

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“The Brussels Parliament adopted the temporary emergency ordinance to allow all LVC drivers to resume earning via the Uber app. The intent was very clear,” said Stilts.

“The government has been asked to apply the ordinance as it was intended, but they're instead following their own interpretation. Drivers have asked and pleaded to be allowed to drive and it hasn't worked. This is the last resort: we see no other choice but to ask the Council of State to clarify, once and for all, how the emergency ordinance should be interpreted and applied.”

An ongoing conflict between the city and Uber

Brussels implemented the emergency legislation after a tumultuous battle with the American tech company, whose operations in Brussels and other parts of Western Europe critics say undermine progressive European labour standards. Uber drivers are designated as self-employed contractors, rather than employees entitled to various social benefits and protections.

The city first banned Uber from operating at all on the premise of a 1995 law against “radio communication devices,” but after a series of protests they agreed in mid-December to implement emergency legislation that would allow some Uber drivers to keep working.

A traditional taxi waits in a designated taxi zone in Brussels. Photo by Helen Lyons/The Brussels Times.

Those drivers would have to meet a specific list of conditions and the ordinance would last until the implementation of a Taxi Plan promised for the summer of 2022, which would aim to reform the sector in a way that leaves room for both platform drivers and traditional taxis.

Among the conditions were that drivers must have obtained their license before January 2021, they must work an average of 20 hours a week on the platform and have Uber as their main source of income.

Flemish and Walloon license-holders risk having their vehicles seized

While no condition related to which region granted the LVC license was listed, after multiple protests from traditional taxi drivers, Brussels began doing controls and issuing sanctions against Uber drivers whose LVC license was issued by Flanders or Wallonia.

"Hundreds of drivers who have mostly worked, and in many cases even live in Brussels, have lost their ability to earn using our app,” Stilts said.

By contrast, traditional taxi drivers argued that the long-promised checks were not being conducted. Some drivers get LVC licenses in Flanders or Wallonia, even though they live in or intend to operate in Brussels, because it’s cheaper.

Indeed, much of the conflict between traditional taxi drivers and Uber drivers comes down to the fact that taxi drivers are required to undergo extensive training and pay huge sums for their licenses, while Uber drivers introduce direct competition without any of those hurdles. A taxi plan to reform this inequity, as was done in Flanders, has been promised for seven years now with no result.

Uber drivers left in the dark

In the meantime, Uber drivers are once again left with uncertainty regarding their ability to operate in Brussels without having their vehicle seized.

“The lack of clarity has reintroduced uncertainty,” Stilts said. “Some drivers felt they were rescued in mid December, then in mid January and early February, they’re once again unsure whether they can keep earning via the Uber app.”

A traditional taxi cab in downtown Brussels. Photo by Helen Lyons/The Brussels Times

Stilts would like to see the government provide drivers with the opportunity to transition their Flemish and Walloon LVC licenses to Brussels. But more than that, he’d like to see the long-promised sector reform.

“On the one hand there is the law that says they can clearly continue. On the other hand is the guidance that says they can’t... The taxi plan needs to be presented as soon as possible.”

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