Brussels taxi drivers feel like 'hostages of political game'

Brussels taxi drivers feel like 'hostages of political game'
A taxi demonstration in Brussels. Credit: Belga

The Uber ride-hailing app has been shut down in Brussels for a week now, and some of the 2,000 drivers who earn money through the platform say they feel like hostages in a political game between the regional government and multinationals.

The Brussels Court of Appeal ruled on 24 November that drivers with an FVO/LVC professional licence - regulated by a 1995 ordinance that allows hired drivers to operate private vehicles - could no longer use the app in the region, declaring a 2015 ruling against Uber Pop to be also valid against Uber X.

Amin Atman, an Uber driver who has been working with an LVC licence since 2017 and who invested tens of thousands of euros in creating his own company to work via the platform, is one such driver.

"We just created our own companies and started working here. We never checked with lawyers whether the system was legit, because Uber was being used in the region, so we assumed everything would be fine," he told The Brussels Times.

But Atman, who continues to be faced with mounting business costs in addition to his expenses as a sole provider for his family, no longer has access to an important source of income. Thousands of other drivers with LVC licenses who have been working with the Uber app since 2016 are in a similar position. He is still able to pick up some work via the Heetch mobility platform but said this doesn't generate a sustainable income.

Uber set up a relief fund of €1 million, which will give all drivers €500 to support themselves and their families "during this difficult time," until a temporary solution promised from the Brussels government is put in place.

"Many of our drivers have lost their main or only source of income, and we feel responsible to help them, to bridge the interval between the court decision forcing us to shut down and a temporary solution being put in place," Laurent Slits, Head of Uber Belgium, told The Brussels Times.

False promises

For years, the Brussels Government promised all drivers – platform and traditional taxi alike – that the 1995 ordinance would be updated to take into account the new apps, allowing them to coexist.

"They promised to find a solution, first in six months, then after one year, then in two years, and we were left waiting. Sadly, the courts were quicker in making a decision than the government. Now we have this judgement, and it destroyed everything. There is no new framework to protect us," Adman said.

One day after the ruling, Vervoort's cabinet introduced a draft of the long-awaited "Taxi Plan" to unify the sector with a common legal framework.

"It is like a political game, and we are the hostages of this game," Adman said. "For years, the government acted like it didn't want to find a solution because they just want to remove Uber from Brussels, then they say that they are in conflict about the ordinance, and now suddenly all ministers are okay with the plan? That is not normal."

Temporary relief

Brussels Minister-President Rudi Vervoort said this week that in light of this situation, the government is working to find a temporary solution that takes into account all types of drivers' interests but also respects the decision of the court.

The 3 November plenary session of the Brussels Parliament considered a number of proposals concerning the taxi sector in Brussels, including the DéFI, Groen, Open Vld and proposal that temporarily amends provisions of the 1995 taxi ordinance.

That proposal would allow Uber drivers to work again from mid-December, but according to Atman, it restricts the number of hours drivers could work. "But at least Uber drivers will have some sort of income for the time it takes to find a long-term solution," he said.

This proposal received criticism from traditional taxi drivers, who claimed that this measure essentially overturns the decision against Uber, and they took to the streets of Brussels on Thursday to protest.

Uber has been operating in many parts of the EU for years but has also been banned in several European countries (including Bulgaria, Hungary and some cities in Germany, Italy and France) for its controversial business model, in which those earning money through the platform are classified as independent contractors without benefits, guaranteed wages, or protections against market saturation.

"I can understand these taxi drivers. They were told now they won, that Uber will disappear and with it the competition, meaning they will again have the monopoly. Then, three days later, the government is considering allowing it to restart, so their anger is legitimate," Atman said.

He added that the real problem is between politicians and Uber, not between different types of taxi drivers, but that the situation is creating a "war-like environment, which is very unsafe."

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Another solution proposed by Vervoort’s socialist PS party was to speed up the examination of the draft reform of the taxi ordinance approved by the whole government. However, Uber Belgium's Slits said that pushing through the Taxi Plan without any consultations or discussions with the sector doesn’t bode well for mobility in Brussels.

The temporary solution is expected to be announced on Friday, "but in the meantime, we are left with a lot of uncertainty and stress, as we are unable to generate a stable income," Atman said.

Bringing Brussels to a halt

The court's ruling had an impact not only on Uber drivers but also on the thousands of users who rely on the app to move around the city, according to Slits.

"Riders are in a difficult situation. We have heard reports of large queues at for example train stations because now there are simply not enough taxis to serve the demand."

He added that Uber has also received testimonies and messages from people saying they are very concerned about not being able to move around in the same way.

"We have heard from women saying that now the only safe way they had to move around Brussels is gone, asking us what they should do now. That is tragic," Slits said, adding that others are considering buying their own car if the app doesn't restart, "which in 2021, is completely backwards."

Modernising and unifying mobility

Whatever solution is agreed on by the government on Friday, it will be temporary until the "Taxi Plan" comes into effect, which drivers have been told will be here no later than July 2022.

Slits said he hopes that this time around, Brussels steps up and takes responsibility, and finally delivers on the seven-year-old promise to ensure the taxi plan enters into force.

According to Atman and many other drivers, the government has no choice but to change the old ordinance, because "the world is changing, and new challenges are facing the transport sector."

"This whole industry has changed, and the popularity of these flexible, alternative transport methods is increasing. To satisfy this demand, we have to work together and do so in a safe climate, to work in harmony, not in war."

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