Lucas S. Ferro, Sergi Cutillas , Toni Pérez – The taxi strike in Barcelona: the right to work versus the fake sharing economy

Taxi drivers in Madrid and Barcelona temporarily terminated their strike Wednesday night. The decision was made following an emergency meeting between national and regional authorities concerning Über and Cabify, which the taxi sectors views as unfair competition. The Spanish government is to let regional authorities decide whether they want to take over responsibility for issuing licenses to taxi business. It was a court decision last week that denied this right to municipal governments, which originally started the strike. The taxi drivers have accepted the “truce”, to see if the government carries through on its promise.

Sergi Cutillas is an economist and worked in the financial sector before taking up his work as a financial justice activist in early 2012. He is a member of the European Research Network on Social and Economic Policy. He is now Secretary of Economy and Work in Podemos Catalonia.

Lucas Ferro, environmentalist specializing in human rights. Responsible for discourse and institutional action of Podem Catalunya.

Toni Pérez is a unionist in charge of the Work and Labor Relations Area of Podemos Catalonia

This article is now available in Castillian here,c_limit/GettyImages-1007053638.jpg

The “uberisation” of the economy threatens to create cities without rights. The rights to the city, urban centres as a space providing for the livings and well-being of its citizens, is threatened today by the new so-called collaborative or sharing economy, which is actually a fake sharing economy, using common spaces as an opportunity for profit extraction.

The citizens of Barcelona are clear victims of this. In February this year Barcelona’s municipal government led by its mayor, Ada Colau, passed  an ordinance regulating taxi companies such as Uber and Cabify, establishing a limit to the number of licences available to such firms. The Spanish Commission for Markets and Competition, a market-oriented institution ascribed to the Ministry of the Economy and in charge of safeguarding the neoliberal principles of the European Single Market legal framework in Spain, filed a lawsuit against the decree by Barcelona’s government. Last week the Superior Court of Justice of Catalonia suspended the decree arguing that it invades the jurisdiction of the central government. This decision ignited protests from the taxi sector in Barcelona, which quickly spread across the whole of Spain.

The taxi strike, which was blocking traffic in the biggest cities of Spain is above anything else a battle for the right to build cities and societies serving their citizens, not cities for vulture funds. Defending the commons of the city in neoliberal Europe, entails the right to public services, to good quality jobs, to fair taxation and, above all, the right of governments to set strict limits for destructive business practices of large transnational corporations such as Uber or Cabify. It is a defence of the very possibility of building a civilized Europe. Such sovereignty is needed if we are to preserve social and labour rights which once upon a time were a pillar of the welfare state in Europe.

Collaborative firms such as Uber or Cabify aren’t start-ups created by young and idealist entrepreneurs. Uber is a colossus present in more than 600 cities valued at $ 70 billion, funded by predatory investment funds such as Blackrock or banks like Goldman Sachs and enjoys a ridiculously low tax rate in the Netherlands (a European tax haven). Cabify which is registered in Delaware (a US state considered a corporate tax haven) also has investors such as the Seaya Fund created and managed by the daughter of the president of  the venture capital firm BBVA, Beatriz González, or the Japanese company Rakuten. What are the implications of such financial strength? It means that they have the capacity to sustain an offensive against the taxi companies and drivers in Spain to break the viability of the sector and take control of if to create a monopoly. With a business model based on fake self-employment and using fiscal engineering to evade paying taxes they constitute a completely unfair competition to the taxi and other sectors. This model derives from the principles of the Single Market as well as from neoliberal Free Trade Agreement such as the CETA.

With regard to housing in Barcelona things are not much different. In the past four years, housing rents in the Catalan capital have risen 27%. Rajoy’s reform of the rental law in 2013 shortened the minimum length of contracts (from 5 years to 3) and permitted an increase in rents above the consumer price index. Such reform, aimed at revitalising the damaged property sector, has actually prompted a new bubble. Investment funds, who have bought large chunks of property mainly from the restructured banking sector in the last years, have begun a bullish price offensive in the city.

The “tenants union” of the city (see here), discovered more than 3,000 apartments in the city for rent in the hands of ten investment fund. A key element of this rental bubble has been sharing economy platforms, such as AirBnB, which provide the opportunity to turn flats into tourist apartments. The last official account speaks of 6,000 houses turned into illegal tourist lodgings. On the other side of the coin, Barcelona suffers, according to the “Platform of the Afflicted by Mortgages”, more than 4,000 home evictions per year, 84% of them due to the impossibility of paying the rent. Such expulsion is worsened by job insecurity and exposure to the other consequences of the economic crisis.

We can see the expansion of the fake sharing economy in many streets of the city, where the scenery is dotted with “riders” on their bicycles with fully identifiable boxes of delivery services (from Deliveroo, Glovo, Uber eats, Just Eat, etc.). However, court rulings have so far determined that such «riders» are not employed by any of these companies despite exclusively following instructions from the “apps” of companies who offer their services. Such workers are in fact “fake self-employed” workers: employees without recognized labour rights. These workers of the new collaborative economy, fuelled by the large rates of youth unemployment, are marginalised from the European social state, not being recognized as employees, and thus without entitlement to unemployment benefits, sick leave, Maternity/ paternity leave, etc. It is estimated that in Spain there are already more than 335,000 fake self-employed working in the fake sharing economy and for various companies outsourcing parts of their productive activity into companies offering similar precarious employment .

The struggle of Spanish taxi drivers is a struggle of European worker using collective action to preserve and recover rights under attack by the neoliberal offensive in the EU. The right to work, to be fairly paid, and the right to the city are in fact struggles for popular sovereignty, the answer to the mantra of There Are No Alternatives justifying eternal neoliberal dispossession. The taxi strike is evidence of the possibility for upstanding common people to decide on their destiny when collective action is taken It is the evidence of the need to recover sovereignty and reclaim rights taken away by neo-liberalism.



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