Uber’s fight for existence in Brussels is a win-or-lose moment for the sharing economy in the European Union. The clash comes at a time when steadfast legislative and court actions across the bloc aim to reclassify platform workers as employees and upend opportunities for contractors. Unless the worrying trend is reversed, European consumers will find themselves cut off from innovation and choice.
The current Brussels Uber ban is based on an archaic 1995 law that prohibits drivers from using smartphones. While it should be a great shame for all of Belgium that such a law has remained untouched till today, it is also hardly surprising. Brussels’ taxi lobby has long been unhappy with the emergence of ridesharing, and these restrictions play to their benefit.
Uber began operating in Brussels in 2014 and had to continuously resist the system and fight back through costly court appeals and restrictions to survive. In 2015, the Belgian commercial court banned UberPOP — a traditional peer-to-peer service — by ruling in favour of Taxis Verts, a cab firm, just to name one example. Since then, Uber drivers have had to get a special licence to operate, which made the service more expensive and less accessible.
However, consumers in Brussels still enjoy the services of Uber. Over 1200 residents of the EU capital signed a petition against the smartphone ban, arguing that “there is no valid and digital alternative to the platform in Brussels at the moment”. On the supply side, there are currently about 2000 drivers using the Uber app. The fact that the Brussels government is selectively enforcing an old law only now, after multiple attempts to get rid of Uber, shows that the company crossed the Rubicon of success, and it has become too inconvenient and competitive to the taxi lobby.
Recently, in Brussels, there have also been calls to reclassify self-employed drivers as employees. This witch hunt after the gig economy mirrors the recent Dutch court ruling about employment benefits for ridesharing drivers and Spanish “riders” law, which concerns the status of delivery workers. Under the pretence of providing security and stability, these interventions threaten the very nature of the sharing economy and are oblivious to the drivers’ needs and flexibility.
Sharing economy platforms give their contractors flexibility and independence, and that is exactly what those choosing to ride share or deliver food are seeking. By surveying 1,001 active Uber drivers in London, a 2018 study by the University of Oxford and Lund University found that they joined the platform because of autonomy, scheduling flexibility, or improved work-life balance that the sharing economy provides. Moreover, the flexibility was so valuable to them that they would only accept fixed schedules on the condition of significant earnings increases.
“Sharing economy platforms give their contractors flexibility and independence, and that is exactly what those choosing to ride share or deliver food are seeking”
Being an independent contractor is linked with “greater enjoyment of daily activities, a decrease in psychological strain, and a greater ability to face problems”, according to a study at the Paris School of Economics. In pursuit of “better” labour standards, it is easy to forget that value is subjective, and that one size doesn’t fit all. Drivers who make a living through platforms make a conscious choice in favour of flexibility and autonomy, and their freedom to do so must be preserved.
By providing value to thousands of consumers and giving platform contractors a chance to plan their time better through alternative work arrangements, the sharing economy makes our lives easier, better, and more exciting. But some European policymakers are giving the sharing economy in the EU — and especially ridesharing — a hard time, which it doesn’t deserve. It’s time for that to stop.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group