Uber v. The World

By Rachel H Roy

Uber is popping up in the news media constantly these days, whether in relation to the tragic shootings in Kalamazoo, Michigan, its employment practices (or lack thereof), or the spectre of Uber’s arrival in Vancouver.

It’s also popping up all over social media newsfeeds: from the BC Liberals’ social media ads welcoming the “sharing economy”, to an open letter from BC technology workers urging the provincial government to regulate Uber. Online, there is no shortage of opinions when it comes to Uber.

In the U.S., Uber faces insurance-related lawsuits, allegations of violating industry regulations and employment standards legislation, a class action, and even a wrongful death suit. By the end of 2015, Uber had been involved in over 170 U.S. lawsuits in the preceding two years.

Globally, Uber isn’t faring much better legally. This past month, two Uber executives were tried in criminal court in France. In the fall of 2015, Uber’s European headquarters in Amsterdam were raided as part of a criminal investigation. Much of Western Europe has banned Uber; Uber is trying to challenge these bans before the European Union’s competition watchdog.

In Canada, both Edmonton and Toronto unsuccessfully attempted to get Canadian courts to grant injunctions against Uber operating in their cities. Other Canadian cities have also attempted crackdowns, levying fines against drivers and even seizing their vehicles. Over 400 vehicles were seized in Montreal in 2015.

Edmonton passed a “vehicle for hire” bylaw in January 2016, becoming the first Canadian jurisdiction to do so. The bylaw requires provincially-approved insurance and city-issued licenses. It also includes a fast mechanism for city council to implement maximum rates (or higher minimum rates) should there be consumer protection concerns related to common Uber practices like surge-pricing.

Calgary passed a similar bylaw just last week, which requires drivers to have insurance, vehicle inspections, valid licences and annual criminal record checks. However, Uber has since publicly claimed that it cannot operate under the new rules and appears to be attempting a game of chicken with Calgary’s city council. In an escalating PR battle, Uber has also said it will either pay for drivers’ fines or provide them with lawyers if they are fined or face other penalties.

Toronto’s mayor and city council split on the issue of Uber in the past, with the mayor stating in late 2014 that “Uber is here to stay” while Toronto police cracked down on Uber drivers at the behest of city council. However, by late 2015, the mayor’s support appeared to be waning: he called Uber’s conduct a “one-finger salute” to Toronto when Uber continued to operate illegal services even after the city provided avenues for it to operate legally.

Given how Uber chooses to do business, it’s no wonder that people are increasingly voicing concern about Uber’s approach to other issues, like background checks, insurance coverage, and labour and employment standards.

Finally, back in Calgary, if it comes down to a twitter fight between the city and Uber, my money's on Mayor Naheed Nenshi.