Gig Economy Project – Taxistas beat Uber in battle for Barcelona

Catalan Government’s new law to regulate private hire platforms effectively restricts them to limousines and passenger vans

Picture taken from @TitoEliteTx

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This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in Europe is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.

TAXI drivers have won a huge victory in Catalonia after the regional government announced it would introduce a law which will effectively limit private hire platforms like Uber, Bolt and Cabify to limousines and passenger vans.

The new VTC (‘vehicle with passenger’) Decree Law is historic in Spain because it is the first to create a clear separation in roles between taxis and VTCs, with the latter restricted to vehicles with a minimum length of 4.9 metres, longer than the standard VTC car. 

The VTCs must also have a ‘zero’ or ‘Eco’ label to signify that they are electric or hybrid vehicles to keep carbon emissions to a minimum. In addition, private hire drivers will continue to have to pre-book the service 15 minutes in advance and the driver will need to have had a license for two years minimum. Sanctions for breaking these rules range from €201 to €6,000.

’El Diario’ estimates that the impact of this law will mean two-thirds of private hire cars which currently operate in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, will no longer be valid, with just 1,500 able to keep their current permits.

The proposed law has been celebrated by the most representative taxi union, Elité Taxi Barcelona,  which agreed to halt mobilisations last week after negotiations with the Catalan Government, following a ‘slow march’ through the centre of the city for four hours in May as a “warning” to legislators to stick to a ratio of one VTC for ever 30 taxis. An earlier draft had been met with a furious response from Elité Taxi, which claimed that it was “whitewashing” the VTCs and the union threatened to “go to war” in opposition to it.

Following the announcement of the proposed law, Elité Taxi Barcelona tweeted a statement that said it was “a great victory for the taxi after so many years of struggle”.

The union added: “This decree is yours, from all the AMB taxi drivers who have been defending your dignity in the streets whenever it has been necessary. This decree is historic, and the taxi drivers of this city, with your involvement and your strength, have made it possible.

“We will continue to fight to have the best taxi in the world and we will continue to fight against the platforms, but that will be tomorrow. Today it’s time to enjoy and savour this battle won.”

However, the announcement was met with a furious response from the private hire employers’ association, Unauto-VTC, which claimed that the law “puts a noose around the neck of the sector in Catalonia and eliminates 70% of licenses when Barcelona desperately needs more options of mobility”.

Unauto-VTC added that they believed it could cost Barcelona up to 3,000 jobs and said that the law “will have legal and economic consequences for the claims and compensation of the VTC companies”, suggesting a legal fight is likely to be in the offing. 

The law is set to pass as it has the support of a majority of the Catalan Parliament after the PSC announced it would back the centre-left Esquerra Republicana (ERC) government’s plan. It must be introduced by 30 September as this is the cut-off point when Spanish Government rules on private hire platforms expire, with each ‘autonomous community’ having to introduce it’s own rules.

The Madrid regional government, led by right-wing Partido Popular (PP) politician Isabel Díaz Ayuso, has gone in the opposite direction to Catalonia, introducing a VTC law which taxi union leaders in the city said could have been written by the hand of the private hire platforms. On the day the law was introduced, Taxistas protested outside throwing fake bills with Ayuso’s face on it, asking ‘for how much were you bought for?’

Defending the Catalan law, Laia Bonet, the President of the Metropolitan Taxi Institute and a Barcelona councillor for mobility in the Partido Socialista Catalunya (PSC), said that it “ends the permanent confusion between taxi and VTC.” 

“We do not want to reproduce in Barcelona the wild liberalism and unfair competition that has been installed in cities like Madrid,” she added. “The taxi is a public service for mobility in the city and the VTCs have to offer another service”.

The Secretary of Territory and Mobility in the Catalan Government, Isidre Gavín, defended “the Catalan model of urban transport that considers the taxi a public transport to which certain requirements are requested”. He added that the VTCs “had little regulation and if it operates in an uncontrolled way, it distorts the model”.

A long fight

The Catalan Decree Law is the culmination of a long fight between the Taxistas of Barcelona and the private hire platforms, especially Uber. The US ridehail giant has continually fought to gain a presence in one of Europe’s main metropoles but struggled to do so as the resistance from Elité Taxi Barcelona in particular, which was established in 2014 specifically to resist the arrival of Uber to the city, has been fierce.

Elité Taxi Barcelona’s leader, Alberto ‘Tito’ Álvarez, is famous for his “f*** Uber” yellow vest, and has led the Taxistas not only in strikes and demonstrations but also blockades of roads, train stations and airport to apply maximum pressure on to the Catalan Parliament to introduce regulation to prevent the ‘Uberisation’ of road transport. 

Following the decision of the High Court in Barcelona to annul the regulations of the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona in 2018, Elité Taxi went on an indefinite strike which eventually led to the Catalan Government introducing new regulations restricting the private hire platform’s activity. 

Speaking to the Gig Economy Project last year, Álvarez explained why the indefinite strike proved to be so effective: “We would go to the centre of Barcelona to the Gran Via and we would plant about 4000 taxis there and we would leave them there, and every day we held assemblies and every day we met with the politicians, every day they called us, well they called me, all the economic agents like AENA, like the traders’ associations, hoteliers and they told us that we should please lift the strike because we were doing a lot of damage to the image of the city.

READ MORE: ‘We are the trade unionism of the future’: Interview with Alberto ‘Tito’ Álvarez

“I told them that they didn’t have to call us, that if they don’t know how to fight for their rights, we do, that the person they should call is the person in charge who has to fix this and so, I don’t remember if we were there for 7 or 8 days, and then something happened that we didn’t expect, which is that we started in Barcelona, but two days later, Madrid, Seville, the Costa del Sol, Valencia, the Basque Country followed us. 

“Then the government started to understand, they saw where we were going; if you stop airports, train stations, bus stations, you stop the whole economy of the country. It’s chaos, and we forced the government to negotiate.”

Uber responded to the new regulation by leaving Barcelona all together in 2019, before returning in 2021 offering a new model, but this has also faced strong resistance from Elité Taxi, with the company struggling to establish any significant presence in the Catalan capital. 

In February this year, the Catalan Competition Authority announced it was opening a sanctioning file against Elité Taxi and Taxi Project 2.0, the union’s political arm, following a complaint made by Uber alleging “anti-competitive conduct”. If found guilty, Elité Taxi Barcelona could face a crippling fine. They responded by organising an “anti-gag” march through the city, claiming that Uber was attempting to “muzzle” the union.

In turn, Uber is being investigated for alleged tax fraud by Spanish tax authorities, announced after a complaint made by Taxi Project 2.0.

Uber is yet to respond to Barcelona’s new VTC law. 

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