UBER'S UK NIGHTMARE: All the problems facing the ride-hailing app in Britain right now

  • Uber’s top UK executive is leaving the company it fights battles on multiple fronts.
  • The Californian ride-hailing giant is under attack in Britain over everything from taxes to sexual assaults by drivers.
  • Here’s what you need to know about the threats facing Uber in one of its most important markets.
Uber london app smartphone logo ride hailing taxiCarl Court/Getty ImagesIt’s all gone Pete Tong.

LONDON — Uber is not having a very good year.

There are the accusations of corporate sexism. The video of its founder angrily berating a driver. Secret “Greyball” software designed to evade authorities. Executives obtaining the medical records of a rape victim. Lawsuits around the world. The resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick.

And that’s not even getting into the Californian ride-hailing firm’s problems in Britain.

Uber’s headaches in the UK are piling up so fast it can be hard to keep track of them all, from ongoing criticism about tax to the existential threat that is its battle with regulator TfL over its London licence.

These issues came to a head on Monday, when news broke that the transportation firm’s top UK executive, Jo Bertram, is leaving the company, and on Tuesday CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is jetting in to meet with regulators.

Here’s what you need to know about the battles Uber is facing in Britain right now.

1. Uber is fighting to retain its licence in London

London is a major market for Uber, and it has 40,000 drivers operating in the city. But in September, London transport regulator (TfL) refused to renew Uber’s licence, saying it isn’t “fit and proper” to hold one.

Uber is — of course — appealing the decision, and will be allowed to continue to operate until the appeals process is exhausted, so don’t expect it to disappear from the streets of the British capital tomorrow. But if it does ultimately lose, it will be a fatal blow for its business in the city — it simply won’t be allowed to operate.

“By wanting to ban our app from the capital Transport for London and the Mayor have caved in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice,” Uber said in a statement in the immediate aftermath of the decision. “If this decision stands, it will put more than 40,000 licensed drivers out of work and deprive Londoners of a convenient and affordable form of transport.”

2. It is appealing a ruling over the legal status of its drivers

Uber driver uphd union yaseen aslamCarl Court/Getty ImagesFormer Uber driver Yaseen Aslam arrives at the Employment Appeals Tribunal on September 28, 2017 in London, England.

Uber has always insisted its drivers are self-employed, and that it is essentially a technology platform connecting independent drivers to potential customers.

But in 2016, an employment tribunal ruled that Uber’s UK drivers should be considered “workers” rather than self-employed contractors, and entitled to a range of additional benefits — like a guaranteed national minimum wage and sick pay.

The decision criticised Uber’s “twisted language,” and said that “the notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is to our minds faintly ridiculous.

The firm appealed the decision in September 2017, and the judge’s decision is expected in the next few months. But that won’t be the end of it — if it goes the wrong way for Uber, it could appeal again.

3. Uber needs a new boss in the UK

Jo Bertram joined Uber four years ago, initially as the general manager for London, ultimately becoming regional general manager for Northern Europe. On Monday, the news broke that she is leaving the company as it wrestles with legal battles on multiple fronts.

Her departure means that Uber’s UK operation is currently without a proper boss, and general manager for London Tom Elvidge is currently stepping in as acting UK GM while Uber hunts for a permanent replacement.

4. Uber has been attacked over sexual assaults by drivers

One thread of criticism frequently levelled at Uber is regarding sexual assaults by its drivers. Data released in 2016 found there was on average one assault every 11 days by a driver in the UK.

In August 2017, the police accused Uber of failing to report an attack by a driver, allowing him to continue to drive and subsequently carry out another “more serious” attack. “Had Uber notified police after the first offence, it would be right to assume that the second would have been prevented,” an inspector wrote.

When TfL declined to renew Uber’s licence, one of the reasons it gave was “its approach to reporting serious criminal offenses” — though many women say they feel safer using Uber due to a number of safety features including location tracking.

In a statement issued at the time of the TfL decision, Uber said: “Drivers who use Uber are licensed by Transport for London and have been through the same enhanced DBS background checks as black cab drivers. Our pioneering technology has gone further to enhance safety with every trip tracked and recorded by GPS. We have always followed TfL rules on reporting serious incidents and have a dedicated team who work closely with the Metropolitan Police.”

5. It is appealing yet another legal ruling — this one over English tests

Uber is embroiled in yet another legal battle — this one over a requirement that private hire drivers in London take English tests.

On February 20,2018, the Court of Appeal will hear Uber’s appeal against the plan (which will be introduced on April 9 if the appeal fails). The company argues that tens of thousands of private hire drivers could lose their jobs if the tests go ahead.

In a statement given earlier this year, Uber’s Tom Elvidge said the firm was pleased to have “secured this appeal to defend tens of thousands of drivers who risk losing their livelihoods because they can’t pass an essay writing test.”

6. Uber has been accused of sex discrimination by a female driver

Leigh Day and GMB, the law firm and union who struck a blow against Uber in the UK in the employment case, are taking on the company in the courts again.

They’re bringing a case against Uber in an employment tribunal on behalf of a female driver who accuses the company of sex discrimination, claiming it puts “her and other women at risk.”

Uber defended itself in a statement, citing it safety features like live GPS tracking as “one of the main reasons why women choose to drive with Uber.”

7. There is ongoing political pressure, particularly around tax

Sadiq khanPA Images/Yui MokMayor of London Sadiq Khan.

All these legal battles are taking place against a backdrop of continued political pressure against the company — particularly around tax.

The company has been frequently criticised over its corporate structure, which meant that in 2015 — the most recent year accounts are available for — its main UK business only paid £411,000 in tax, while bookings from drivers where filtered through a company in the Netherlands.

In September, The Financial Times reported that weeks before TfL’s decision regarding Uber’s licence, a board member for the regulato brought up Uber’s tax structure as a concern. “I know tax is a question for HMRC [HM Revenue & Customs], but I have never understood how Uber’s services can be London-based for the purposes of the Taxi and Private Hire Act 1998, but non-UK based for the purposes of taxation, in particular VAT,” they said.

But the pressure from some quarters against Uber is broader than just financial criticism. It stems in part from opposition to Uber’s ruthless reputation — and also due to support for London’s historic black cab trade, which is under unprecedented threat from Uber.

Britain is a multi-sided struggle for Uber. It is fighting multiple, intense legal battles. It needs to win the hearts and minds of regulators and lawmakers. It may yet be forced to change the way it operates — or even be booted out of some cities entirely.

These battles won’t be easy, and they’re not ending any time soon.

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