Anne Dufresne, Bruno Bauraind – The new “taxi plan” in Brussels: Towards an Uberisation of the sector?

Anne Dufresne and Bruno Bauraind, researchers at GRESEA, find that the new “Taxi Plan” for Brussels, which came into effect on 21 October and is aimed at resolving continual conflict between Uber and taxis since 2014, will merely intensify the conflict and take it onto an interregional footing, while deepening the Uberisation of both private hire drivers and taxis.

This article is a shortened and translated version of a piece published by GRESEA and IRES. Click here for information.

Picture by Dr. Matthias Ripp

THE conflict between the digital VTC (private hire driven) platform, Uber, and the historical players in private passenger transport, the taxis, broke out in February 2014, as soon as the American company set up in the Brussels-Capital region of Belgium. It was only resolved, at least provisionally, in June 2022 with the adoption of the “Taxi plan”. 

This conflict concerns the modalities of Uber’s legalisation. It is taking place within the framework of a 27-year-old regulation that does not take into account the innovations linked to the digitalisation of the economy. 

In Brussels, the passenger transport sector is regulated by the Brussels-Capital region ordinance of 27 April 1995, which governs both the activity of taxis (taxi operators and private hire drivers) and that of hire cars with drivers (LVC). Considered as a public utility service, the taxi business is highly regulated. The number of licences available in the region is limited to 1,300. This numerus clausus has led to a sharp rise in the price of licences, which used to be traded at around 80,000 euros on the black market. In return, the taxi licence gives them a number of advantages: specific taxi lane, reserved parking spaces in strategic locations, marauding, etc.

The legislative constraints on the LVC service are different from those of taxis. The fare is a minimum of 90 euros and the vehicle must be put at the service of a person for at least three hours. The ordinance does not say whether these hours must be provided in succession. The cars must have a distinctive sign, a number plate beginning with a T.  However, limousine drivers may not park in taxi ranks. The vehicle may not be made available to the public, marauding is therefore prohibited and they may not be equipped with a radio communication device. Unlike a taxi driver, a limousine driver must have a portfolio of private customers. 

In practice, and as a result of technological innovations, the line between taxi and LVC activity is often very thin. This blurring is maintained by the private passenger transport sector long before Uber was established in Belgium. Indeed, it is dominated by taxi companies that sometimes push drivers into illegal practices such as moonlighting, “flat-rate hiring” or the marketing of licences. Moreover, any prospect of new regulation has long been prevented by electoral cleavages, including within political parties. 

Since 2014, this uncertainty has encouraged an expansion in the number of drivers working for digital VTC platforms such as Uber. For workers who are often poorly qualified, Uber makes it possible to partially avoid the cost of entering the taxi profession. Thus, around 2,000 drivers will be working for digital VTC platforms in Brussels in 2021. The Brussels government is therefore obliged to regulate the private passenger transport sector, which was previously protected and monopolistic, by including the new situation imposed by the platforms. 

Hence the ‘Taxi plan’, which became law on 21 October following an intense period of conflict between the taxis and Uber drivers, involving demonstrations on both sides, after Ubers were banned in Brussels in November 2021 by a Brussels Court, before being given temporary licences to operate through “plaster” measures in the Belgian parliament known as “Band Aid 1” and “Band Aid 2”. 

The text of the Plan aims to unify the sector under a common status, with identical operating conditions for operators and self-employed drivers. The LVC category disappears. The future legislation will include “Station Taxis” (classic taxis), and “Street Taxis”, which must be booked in advance. A “Ceremonial Taxi” service is also created. Each service will have a specific fare structure. Only station taxis can use the spaces reserved for them in the public space. The regional regulation provides for an approval mechanism (renewable for seven years) authorising the platforms to offer their services on the Brussels territory. Whereas LVC drivers did not have to comply with this requirement, all drivers will now have to hold a certificate of competence in order to work. To obtain this certificate, drivers must attend an information session on the profession and pass behavioural tests as well as a number of examinations on sectoral legislation, a minimum knowledge of Dutch and English and road safety. Another novelty is the obligation for ‘booking intermediaries’ to obtain an authorisation in return for a fee in order to be able to offer their services to both taxi operators and taxi users. 

However, this long-awaited “Taxi Plan” does not resolve the thorny issue of the number of licences that can be granted. The ordinance promotes non-transferable and free taxi licences, in order to break up speculation, but does not resolve the problem of past licences that were bought at a high price.

The consequence of the Plan is that Uber has finally escaped the collective actions of taxi operators and LVC drivers. For LVC drivers, the platform appears to be more of a working tool than an employer. Although Uber still refuses to accept the status of employer, it has gradually become a fully-fledged player in social conflict. This is evidenced by the recurrent press statements by the platform’s Belgian CEO and the petition launched by Uber to denounce the court’s decision to ban it.  

This evolution of the conflict also reflects a progressive and ‘practical’ formalisation of the taxi sector in Brussels. Indeed, the ‘anti-Uber’ discourse of the sector’s traditional employers is becoming less and less legitimate as their members in turn use digital applications to structure the market. For example, a firm like Taxis Verts (TV) works almost like Uber with a smartphone application for customers. It is the platform that assigns the journey to a driver under contract with TV. The driver is either ‘self-employed’ or works on behalf of a small ‘taxi owner’ who has one or more cars and employs him under various statuses (possibly as an employee, but more often as a ‘fixed-price’ worker or false self-employed). In relation to Uber, the false independence is even more striking here, since TV can apply sanctions to drivers via a “disciplinary board”, even though none of the drivers are an employee of TV. In addition, drivers pay a fee to the company for providing rides, whereas Uber takes a commission proportional to the revenue generated by the rides provided.

The Brussels political world, whether or not it is favourable to Uber, seems to be systematically reacting to court decisions and lobbying by the players. The term “plaster” is symbolically strong in this respect. Since 2014, its inability to decide to adapt the regional legislative framework to the new technological realities has finally allowed Uber to develop in Brussels and gradually become a key player in the private passenger transport sector. 

The case of Uber should be seen in relation to the strategy of platforms in general. Using the fait accompli, they take advantage of the long time it takes for court decisions to be handed down to develop. When the courts prohibit their activity, the political authorities are faced with inextricable blackmail. This is all the more true in a consociative democracy such as Belgium, which traditionally bases political power on as large a majority as possible, and now includes lobbies defending the interests of the platforms.  It is therefore in a space of soft regulation, unrestrained by the political power of the new high-tech multinationals, that Uber has been able to develop and finally flatten the Brussels taxi sector.

Rather than putting an end to it, the reform of the Brussels regulations governing the sector will change the nature and scope of social conflict. Firstly, even if the immediate issue for Uber drivers is the question of the ‘right to work’, the result obtained by the taxi ordinance will soon raise the question of ‘labour law’. However, this will be done within the very specific legal and political framework of Belgium which, beyond the case of Uber and unlike other EU countries, is very favourable to the establishment and development of platforms. 

This was recently confirmed by a court decision and an agreement by the federal government. In contrast to the recent French decision, the Deliveroo platform in Belgium won against the couriers. The Brussels Labour Court ruled against the majority of European jurisprudence, stating that couriers do not have an employment contract with Deliveroo but are self-employed. Moreover, on 15 February 2022, the federal government adopted a “platform worker agreement” as part of the Employment deal, which offers almost no rights to the “new workers” that are the couriers. For example, the extension of the law on industrial accidents, which appeared to be the main element of the agreement, is only planned for platform workers with independent status, even though 85% of delivery workers work in the so-called collaborative economy. They are therefore not concerned by this extension, which consequently misses its target.

Secondly, the framework referred to in this article is the Brussels regulatory framework.  However, LVC drivers from the Flemish (north of the country) and Walloon (south of the country) regions are bound by different regulations. Uber will therefore play on the divisions of regulatory competence between regions to circumvent the numerus clausus in the Brussels-Capital Region and ensure an oversupply of drivers in Brussels. This concerns above all the Flemish Region, which geographically surrounds Brussels and which does not set a numerus clausus. Uber has already configured its application not only so that LVCs in Flanders can take intra-Brussels trips, but also so that Brussels drivers cannot take trips from Flanders to Brussels (which they can normally do, if the trip is booked while they are in Brussels). This is especially problematic in view of the importance of journeys from Brussels National Airport, located in the Flemish Region, to the Brussels-Capital Region. In 2022, this competition of regional regulations was already the subject of protest actions against Uber by Brussels drivers and several Flemish and Walloon licensed vehicles were stopped in the streets of Brussels. In view of these latest developments, the conflict over the ‘Uberisation’ of the taxi sector may soon take on an interregional dimension.

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