Home Society Whistleblower’s testimony promises to give Uber a bumpy ride

Whistleblower’s testimony promises to give Uber a bumpy ride

by host

Uber faces a potential reckoning over both its past lobbying practices and the future rights of its gig workers when senior executive-turned-whistleblower Mark MacGann testifies before European Parliament lawmakers on Tuesday.

The much-anticipated hearing follows July reports about Uber’s lobbying playbook from 2013-2017, as it sought to win over European governments when it launched on the Continent. The so-called Uber Files revealed close ties between Uber and politicians such as Emmanuel Macron — then French economy minister — and suggested the company “weaponise[d]” its drivers to influence national governments.

The Uber Files investigation stemmed from documents leaked by MacGann, the company’s former top lobbyist in Europe, who identified himself as the whistleblower in an interview with the Guardian, which led reporting on the story. After addressing European lawmakers on Parliament’s employment committee, MacGann will turn to a broader audience at the Web Summit tech fair in Lisbon next week.

But it isn’t just Uber’s past lobbying behavior that’s of interest to MEPs; they also want to sway opinion in the debate over future legislation on platform work. 

Gig workers’ benefits

The lawmakers whom MacGann will address are in the final stretch of negotiations on the bloc’s platform work bill, a proposal that could reclassify up to 4.1 million gig workers as employees instead of independent contractors.  

Such a shift could heavily impact Uber’s business model, as it would mean having to provide more benefits to drivers, including minimum pay. The company would also face the burden of having to prove to a court that its drivers are not employees (currently, the burden of proof is on the drivers to prove employment). 

MacGann’s testimony is liable to strike a chord with lawmakers working on the file — as, speaking to the Guardian, he accused Uber of misrepresenting how its business model could financially serve drivers. 

“I was the one telling [lawmakers] that they should change the rules because drivers were going to benefit and people were going to get so much economic opportunity,” MacGann told the Guardian — adding it was a “lie” the company sold to policymakers, consumers, and drivers. The efforts to push into European markets that MacGann oversaw happened “often to the detriment of drivers,” a press release by the Signals Network — the organization supporting MacGann — added last week.

Statements like that could embolden left-leaning political groups to push for a more ambitious platform work file. The lead MEP, Italian S&D lawmaker Elisabetta Gualmini, has pushed for more gig workers to be reclassified as employees, with the blessing of leftist groups in Parliament. While talks are progressing — the aim is to reach an agreement sometime next month — key lawmakers were up until last week still at loggerheads over a provision laying down criteria to determine whether gig workers are actually employees.

Uber may take some comfort in the fact that delegates from EU member countries — who must also sign off on the legislation — seem unmoved by the allegations in the Uber Files. Some, like France, align more openly with the platforms, opting for social dialogue with workers over mass reclassification.

Has Uber changed?

Even as some lawmakers push for the platform work directive to be broader in scope, their ability to punish Uber for its past lobbying practices might prove to be far more limited.

Parliament’s employment committee invited Zuzana Púčiková, Uber’s head of EU policy, to a separate panel that will take place after MacGann’s keynote address and remarks by Jobs Commissioner Nicolas Schmit. The panel will include Púčiková and two other speakers: former Uber driver Brahim Ben Ali and academic Andreea Nastase.

While Púčiková is a Brussels insider — she previously worked for Amazon — she joined Uber only in mid-2019 and wasn’t with the company during the period covered by the Uber Files. That makes her the face of Uber’s new narrative: We have changed as a company.

“We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values,” the company said in response to the Uber Files — adding that it is willing “to find common ground” with former foes, including labor unions and taxi companies.

Uber has already tried to walk that talk in Belgium: In August, it promised to give taxis the chance to join its app, and last week it struck a deal with a socialist union. Concrete results, though, are yet to materialize.

Much of MEPs’ focus on Uber’s lobbying has up until now been on Neelie Kroes, the former EU digital chief who allegedly lobbied on behalf of Uber during her cooling-off period after her stint at the European Commission. The EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF is investigating Kroes’ behavior, and the Commission itself has said numerous times that it’s “assessing the matter.” It’s unlikely that Schmit will tell lawmakers more than that.

With Uber’s Púčiková in front of them, lawmakers will have one overarching question: Have you really changed? Uber has certainly cozied up with lawmakers throughout discussions on the platform work bill; the ride-hailing lobby group MoveEU — of which Uber is a member — even co-organized two events on the topic with Bulgarian EPP lawmaker Radan Kanev in the Parliament’s buildings.

MoveEU is properly registered in the EU’s transparency register, and other platforms have done the same. Last week, the European Tech Alliance — which counts ride-hailing and food-delivery platforms Bolt, Glovo, FreeNow and Wolt as members — organized an event on platform work together with Slovak EPP MEP Miriam Lexmann.

Uber might now claim that it’s lobbying like anyone else in Brussels. Lawmakers, however, want Uber to sweat a bit over its alleged past indiscretions.

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