Aug 17, 2015

Grievance Speech about Uber – 17 August 2015

I am really here in this chamber tonight to speak about concerns that have been raised by my local taxi community, and they relate to the rise of the service called Uber and also its lack of compliance with Australian laws. Five years ago in San Francisco, the Uber transportation service was created by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp. Uber aimed to use its application, or app, on a mobile phone, to allow consumers with smart phones to submit an electronic booking request which would route to Uber drivers who used their own cars to provide a transportation service. From this concept five years ago, Uber is now available in 58 countries and 300 cities worldwide. It has become increasingly popular with younger Australians since it set up its operations in Australia three years ago.

What I am going to say is not going to be popular with young Australians, but young Australians need to be very concerned about services that are offered without appropriate workplace protections, and without the legal protections which would offer them protection when they used these services. I am a huge supporter of new forms of innovation. However, innovation must be bound by workplace laws, occupational health and safety laws and laws that provide insurance and commercial protections for users. We have laws governing taxi services at present, and it is my contention that those same laws should govern Uber services as well.

On 6 April, I met with representatives from Dandenong Taxis led by Mr Jaspreet Hayer. This group included Mr Nirmal Sekhon, Mr Charles Harrisson and Mr Ali Demirci, who are members from the local Afghan, Indian and Turkish communities. These leading figures from Dandenong Taxis drew their concerns about Uber to my attention. They drew a very powerful contrast between the regulations and laws they are subjected to versus what the providers of Uber services are required to meet.

For example, the Australian taxi community operates legally under the transportation act. Additionally, it pays government licence fees of up to $24,000 and full taxi insurance of $5,000; WorkCover is paid for drivers; liability gap insurance is paid for passengers; and full taxi registration is paid, and that is roughly $2,700 a year. The cab owners collect the GST and submit BAS statements. Their vehicles have to be no older than 6.5 years. Registered taxi drivers provide disabled passenger support. Annual vehicle roadworthiness checks have to be undertaken. Vehicle signage and decals are mandatory. Driver knowledge tests and driver police checks are undertaken. Blood alcohol readings of 0.0 per cent are required for professional drivers, and cameras in vehicles are required. Fares are set by government, and GPS tracking is mandatory for all cabs.

Here, by contrast, is what is required of the providers of the Uber service. They are not legal under the transportation act; they actually operate illegally, and they have been issued with cease-and-desist orders. They pay no licence fees to the government and pay no insurance for passengers. No WorkCover for passengers is required, and liability gap insurance is not required. Uber only pays the standard registration fees. Uber collects no GST and does not submit BAS statements. It only restricts the vehicles to be no older than 10 years. It does not mandatorily provide disabled passenger support. There are no roadworthiness checks required. It pays no signage fees. Uber drivers do not have to undertake a knowledge check, a test or a police check. They can have a blood alcohol level of up to 0.05, but no cameras are required in their cars. Fares are not set by the government, and there is no guarantee of GPS car tracking.

How on earth would anyone in this chamber say that that is a level playing field for our taxi drivers and taxi cab owners? As a member of parliament, I am deeply focused on jobs and workplace security. I am incredibly concerned about this new standard that is able to be used by Uber and its drivers because they are contractors, not employees. Many Australians enjoy renting out their room via Airbnb and driving their cars under Uber, but what we are starting to see, and what we are hearing from across the country and around the world, is that—notwithstanding the new employment opportunities that are arising—they are raising very hard questions about workplace protections and what employment conditions will look like in the future.

Uber’s classification of drivers as contractors means that the company is not responsible for all sorts of employment protections and conditions, such as fair pay, sick leave, annual leave, paid parental leave, superannuation, car maintenance and much more. If all drivers were classified as employees, Uber would have to provide these conditions and protections, as well as to manage a workforce of more than a million people internationally. Uber drivers are not granted proper employment agreements as contractors to ensure their rights at work are protected. This is, in my mind, a dangerously deregulated environment. We have seen and heard examples of customers that have suffered abuse from Uber drivers, customers who have caught drivers texting whilst driving and customers who have been driven in cars that have encountered serious mechanical difficulties because they are not roadworthy and there is no body to force them to be roadworthy.

I am advised that there are more than a million Australians who use Uber. It has 15,000 drivers—4,500 in my own state of Victoria. What I am saying here might not be popular with some of the younger users or with people who might be looking for employment via Uber, but I make the point to them: why would you work in such a dangerous, deregulated environment, and why would you catch a service which is so deregulated? It is a bit like hopping on a plane that does not have a commercially qualified pilot, does not have to be subjected to airworthiness checks, and one where, if something happened, you would not be covered by insurance. It is the same parallel as a form of transport that requires you to be going from point A to point B. I think that, if more young people and people using these services were actually thinking about what they were doing in getting into these services or even providing these services, they would have second thoughts.

In Australia, and in my local taxi community, they are not perfect but they strive to ensure customer safety. In most states there are police checks on taxi drivers, there are mechanical checks, and there are cameras, screens, GPS and emergency call buttons in their taxis. The taxi drivers that I talk to suggest that at the very least, even as a starting point, Uber’s Australia and New Zealand operations consider improving customer safety, ensure Uber drivers undergo police and accreditation checks, and check their vehicles.

The consistent theme that has emerged in my consultations with consumers, and taxi owners and drivers, is that, instead of standing up for working people, Uber just wishes to play outside the rules. Of course Uber will gain an advantage if it is not appropriately regulated—it does. It has been created in a way to provide less transparent and more cost-effective ways of providing this service, but the price is no safeguards and no protections for drivers and customers. If the same standards now applied to the Australian taxi community—if you are looking at trying to ‘reduce down’ to a level playing field—then the taxi environment generally would be completely commercially unsafe. We would basically have to create a system that was really detrimental to everyone that would be using a taxi service. Uber makes the case, apparently, for taxi reform but then does not want to play on a level playing field. There may be some requirement for modernisation of taxi services, but not like this—not without the protections.

The key thing is the concerns of people that have bought in, that have invested, whose livelihoods are involved. One gentleman that I spoke to, who was present at that meeting, spent half a million dollars buying a taxi plate. His future, and his family’s future, were based on that investment, and that investment could basically be wiped off the map if Uber is allowed to continue to offer its services untrammelled in the way in which it has. The other thing that is of deep concern to people is the issue of not paying GST. Uber does not want to pay GST; it does not want to pay its fair share of tax. It has been concerning to hear that Uber has taken the ATO to court over even occasional drivers having to register for the GST. Australians believe any company that operates in Australia and their employees, like Uber drivers, should pay their fair share. So Uber is even attempting to avoid that particular commitment.

I think that it was a very compelling meeting and I thank those who were present on Thursday. It was a very serious meeting about the concerns that these taxi drivers have for this unregulated, deregulated, dangerous environment that is being offered by a $50 billion multinational company. I think we should have a meeting of transport ministers. We need to resolve these things. We need to regulate Uber so it does not continue to provide these dangerous and unsafe services in this country.

 

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