Uber drivers free to unionise in Seattle: Reports

Drivers for ridesharing platforms such as Uber have received the right to unionise in Seattle after the city's council voted in favour of giving drivers that fall outside of usual employment scenarios the ability to turn to a support organisation.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Seattle will become the first state in the US to establish a framework for drivers from for-hire platforms such as Uber to unionise after the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to allow it, local media has reported.

According to The Seattle Times, under the ordinance, a company would be required to provide the city with a list of its Seattle drivers, then a not-for-profit organisation which would most likely be a union would use the list to contact the drivers to organise and negotiate agreements on issues such as pay and working conditions.

It also reported that Uber is being sued by cities such as Seattle for categorising its drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees.

David Rohrsheim, Australia and New Zealand general manager for Uber, has constantly reaffirmed that Uber's driver partners are "certainly not employees" as they are independent operators who are free to come and go if they do not wish to drive at a certain time.

"Uber drivers are not providing taxi services. Full stop," Rohrsheim said in August. "They are providing a ride sharing opportunity, part time, no cash changing hands, fully electronic."

Speaking at the Think Tank conference in Sydney on Monday, Rohrsheim said keeping drivers as contractors rather than employees allows the driver to drive as they please and work the hours that they want, and they may even be utilising other ride-booking apps at the same time.

"A driver could be logged onto the Uber platform and another, and another, and I wouldn't have full visibility of that so at the end of the day they are responsible for the transport they're providing," he said.

"We'll monitor and if we see anything extreme, or anything that's outside of government health recommendations, we'll just remind them of what the government health recommendations are in their sector."

Rohrsheim said, however, that the issue around fatigue is important.

"In the established industry you've got a model where drivers pay a bunch of money for the right to operate that vehicle for 12 hours and then if they don't make that money back, they go to an ATM and are personally paying for it," he said.

"They are highly incentivised to make the most of those 12 hours and probably drive every single minute of those hours."

According to Rohrsheim, under the Uber model, drivers can come on and off when they want.

"They're not employees, they don't have to set their schedule or ask for hours; they set their own schedule around whatever is going on in their life," he said.

Rohrsheim said that flexibility is the number one thing drivers talk about; the freedom to work whenever they want, adding that many of Uber's drivers work approximately 10 hours a week and do not want a nine-to-five job.

The Australian Capital Territory became the first Australian state or territory to mark Uber as legal in October. Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Transport Reform, Shane Rattenbury, said that taxi industry reform is part of broader reform to public transport, coupled with a belief that it will give customers access to safe, flexible, and affordable ride-sharing services, while also reducing costs for taxi drivers, owners, and passengers.

Rohrsheim said at the time the concern of forgoing revenue was put to the Chief Minister Andrew Barr, to which he said it had been modelled out and whilst it is expected to take millions out of the budget, Barr said he considered it to be a very sensible investment in the transport infrastructure the territory will get in return.

According to Rohrsheim, rather than deploying transport infrastructure over years into a city, software such as that used by Uber is making better use of what a city already has.

"Some of the projects in New South Wales take five years to agree and then five years to build at a vast expense; those projects should happen but in the meantime let's make better use of what we've got," he said.

Speaking about UberPool, where two people headed in the same direction have the ability to ride together, Rohrsheim said the initiative is about making better use of the trips that are already happening and the cars that are already on the roads.

"We're very eager to make better use of the cars Sydney already has"

"Most personal cars are used for only one hour a day and during that hour they probably have four empty seats. With Uber now you've got the ability to say 'I'm only interested in picking up passengers headed towards this destination'."

"There are hundreds of thousands of cars going across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and a whole bunch of congested roads that we're about to spend tens of billions of dollars in widening or replacing," he said. "That's something we're working on doing and hope to see that here next year."

Rohrsheim said car pooling is something that governments have been recommending for decades, but said that it has been Uber that has actually made the concept work.

Despite having performed 10 million trips on UberX in Australia, Rohrsheim said the skies have not collapsed, as previously perceived.

"There's a million Australians that are signed up, so we're pretty excited about that, but it means there are 20+ million that haven't yet so there's something holding them back, and it's not lack of having a smartphone or a credit card," he said.

"The biggest barrier to more drivers joining the platform is certainly the government's stamp of approval. We are asking for regulations on ridesharing ... we know there's a certain number of people and probably businesses that are saying they need the government's approval before they can start using us -- so that's why we're as eager as anybody for regulations to be put in place."

In September, Uber found itself in court with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), arguing during the first directions of Uber B.V v The Commissioner of Taxation of the Commonwealth of Australia that UberX drivers do not fall within the same definition as taxi and limousine drivers, and therefore should be required to pay the Good and Services Tax (GST).

Then last month the controversial startup found itself facing a Senate inquiry into the tax avoidance of multinational companies, with Brad Kitschke, director of public policy in Australia and New Zealand, arguing that Uber was not avoiding paying tax, despite its headquarters being in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is considerably less than that of Australia.

"We are unlike other, more mature US tech companies," Kitschke said. "First, and simply, we are not yet a profitable company, and as you are aware, companies are taxed on profit, not revenue."

Kitschke argued that the lion's share of all revenue generated goes to the driver partner, and stays local, adding that out of every dollar spent by a rider, at least 75 percent of the fare is kept by the partner.

Despite the Victorian government gearing up to regulate Uber in September, and New South Wales launching a taskforce to tackle outdated regulatory framework in the state, ACT remains the only territory or state to move forward with legalising the platform.

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