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This Is What Uber Needs To Do To Win Back London

After losing its license in the British capital, Uber is meeting with officials this week. Its new CEO is going to have to prove himself a willing partner.

This Is What Uber Needs To Do To Win Back London
[Photo: Mavis CW]

Dara Khosrowshahi has his work cut out for him. This week, the new CEO of Uber will sit down with Transport for London, the organization that recently denied Uber the license necessary to operate in the region. The visit comes as Uber’s top Northern European exec, Jo Bertram, is stepping down, and as Silicon Valley tech companies face increasing resistance from lawmakers and regulators in cities across Europe.

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In order to win back the British capital, Khosrowshahi will have to reorient the London office to be more amenable to addressing the city’s concerns.

Uber has been called out by London officials for failing to properly conduct background checks, and for not reporting illegal activity that happens while riders and drivers are using the platform. In an April letter obtained by the Guardian, a Metropolitan Police inspector complained to TfL’s general manager of taxi and private hire that Uber was only reporting potentially illegal incidents to the TfL rather than to the police–a process that delayed investigations by many months. For instance, the inspector highlighted an incident in which Uber failed to report one of its drivers who had allegedly committed a sexual assault. That driver was then involved in a second “more serious” incident.

Historically, Uber has been standoffish with local government authorities and generally reluctant to share data. “Rather than engaging with the regulators [Uber] just keeps them at arms’ length,” says Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

For a long time, Uber could afford to be cavalier. The company’s rapid growth and popularity among consumers has, in the past, somewhat insulated it from having to bend to the whims of government officials. Case in point: The company was able to amass an 844,000-signature strong petition to keep ride-hailing service in the city. But the TfL decision–effectively forcing the company to reconsider how it interacts with local leaders–shows London officials may be losing patience. This is a part of a larger trend in Europe, where governments are standing up to American tech giants that want to flout European-style regulations. To get back into the city’s good graces, Uber will have to prove itself a willing collaborator.

“Uber can take the higher moral ground, which is what I think they’re trying to do, in saying we want to work with you, Mr. Mayor, to find a way of delivering this new innovation, this new service that obviously constituents of your city have been using and want to use,” says Kulveer Ranger, who worked as London’s director of transport policy between 2008 and 2011.

A Brexit To Call Its Own?

Coming to a truce with TfL over safety standards will not be Uber’s last challenge in the United Kingdom. If anything, it’s the first battle in a larger war that’s brewing over the gig economy.

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This week, Uber will appeal a U.K. decision that determined two Uber drivers deserved worker status, entitling them to both paid time off and the minimum wage. (The company has 40,000 drivers in London, one of its biggest cities.) Uber contends the drivers on its platform are self-employed gig workers. It’s an important case that could dictate whether Uber and companies like it will be able to continue to claim their workers are independent.

Ultimately, Uber has little control over whether the court decision is overturned, but it does have a choice over how it handles the result. “There’s a set of regulatory questions that are quite complex regulatory questions, and Uber has to work much better than it does at the moment with the authorities to find sustainable ways of working within the spirit of the regulations and the law,” says Taylor, who co-authored a set of policy recommendations for British prime minister Theresa May on how the government should regulate gig economy labor.

As Uber conducts discussions in London this week, the U.K. at large will be looking to see if Uber’s new CEO is ready to cooperate.

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company who covers gig economy platforms, contract workers, and the future of jobs.

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