Monday

18th Dec 2017

Taxi drivers snarl up Brussels in anti-Uber protest

  • 'People use Uber because it is is cheaper. It's the only reason', said taxi driver Rachid (Photo: Peter Teffer)

A tense scene took place in the Rue Belliard in Brussels' European Union neighbourhood on Wednesday morning (16 September).

A pedestrian in an orange-striped shirt held up his middle finger in the direction of two taxis, parked in the middle of the unusually empty street.

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  • A man threw fireworks while taxi drivers protested in the Rue Belliard in Brussels (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The man, walking from a safe distance of around twenty metres, shouted at the two taxi drivers. He was apparently not impressed by their demonstration against what taxi drivers see as unfair competition by American company Uber.

Uber allows people without taxi permits to sell rides via mobile phone app Uberpop.

“I only take Uber!”, the man shouted towards Rachid, a 42-year-old taxi driver from Brussels, who preferred not to give his last name.

“Go by foot!”, the taxi driver shouted back.

It was perhaps not the best way to maintain the relationship with potential customers, but Rachid said he felt he had no choice.

“What can we do?”, he said.

“People use Uber because it is is cheaper. It's the only reason”, Rachid said. But the reason why Uber drivers have lower fares, is because they do not pay taxes, or need the permits that taxi drivers do, he added.

He questioned the screening that Uber says it does of its drivers. “I won't send my child on an Uber.”

The taxi drivers' protest on Wednesday caused delays all over Brussels. In addition to a taxi convoy which made its way from Brussels North train station to the EU area's Schuman square, there were also unannounced blockades.

Around 1,200 protesters are reportedly taking part, with the police advising people to avoid travelling to the city centre by car.

Belgian media reported that some people had to walk the last leg on their journey to the airport because of the unannounced blockades – a handful missed their flights.

The situation at the intersection of the Rue de la Loi and Avenue des Arts was more jovial.

A police officer was chatting to some taxi drivers, whose cars had been parked in rows, blocking one side of the city's inner ring road.

Another taxi driver joined the conversation, arguing that Uber drivers should adhere to the same rules they do.

“In the Netherlands, Airbnb is starting to follow the rules. So it is possible”, he said, handing this reporter a leaflet that said “End social dumping – Uber STOP!”.

In Amsterdam, Airbnb, an online platform for individuals to rent out parts of their house – and seen as a competitor by the traditional hotel sector – has started to charge tourism taxes, to pay to the municipal government. It recently announced it would start doing the same in Paris as of 1 October.

Uber so far has appeared less willing to follow the existing rules, which, it claims, stifles innovation.

“Taxi drivers are trying to protect their monopoly”, Filip Nuytemans, general manager of Uber Belgium, told Belgian news programme De Ochtend. “The law should be adapted to allow competition and innovation”, he added.

Belgian deputy prime minister Alexander De Croo also took a jab at the striking taxi drivers, in a social media message.

“Improve customer experience. Invest in technology. Innovate the business. All things the taxi sector could do instead of strike”, De Croo wrote.

But Rachid said it was difficult for him to earn enough money to feed his four children. “I have ten to fifteen clients a day. Two years ago, I think I had twice as much.”

He does not blame the Uber drivers as much as he does the company.

“It's not about the people, it's about the system”, Rachid noted, adding that there may be a race to the bottom, if services like taxis and hotels, and possibly others, come under increasing pressure of competition from new online platforms.

“I have never stayed at an Airbnb. But I understand why people do it. You have to find a solution to spend less if you are paid less”, he said.

Another anti-Uber protest is scheduled to take place in Brussels on 7 October.

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