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Uber Files embolden the left on tougher platform work bill

Uber’s past behavior could haunt the future of the European Union’s platform work reforms.

A string of recent reports — the so-called Uber Files — shedding light on the company’s lobbying tactics could turn an already contentious fight over gig economy workers’ rights even uglier.

Just this week, European Parliament lawmakers ramped up their work on a European Commission proposal that would reclassify millions of platform workers as employees instead of independent contractors. Such reclassification would grant them access to minimum pay and other benefits, and come at a significant cost for companies like Uber.

The revelations in the Uber Files, however, have empowered left-wing lawmakers to seize the moment and raise the stakes of the reforms — potentially reclassifying even more workers.

“If everything is true, this is really unacceptable, indecent and a sign that we have to do something,” lead lawmaker Elisabetta Gualmini told POLITICO in an interview. 

The backlash is reminiscent of how Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen helped spark outrage among lawmakers working on the EU’s content moderation rulebook, the Digital Services Act (DSA).  

Opposite directions

Ride-hailing and food-delivery companies urged caution on the bloc’s platform work bill before it was published in December, warning that an EU initiative could lead to job losses or threaten the flexibility they claimed drivers and couriers cherish. 

The Commission’s introduction of a so-called rebuttable presumption puts the onus on platforms to refute, in court, the presumption of employment if a worker’s status fulfills certain conditions.  

The criteria remain up for debate — especially in Parliament. The S&D’s Gualmini, the lead lawmaker on the file, removed the criteria, paving the way for a broader presumption of employment and the reclassification of even more workers.  

“It is up to the platforms to demonstrate that their workers are genuinely self-employed,” Gualmini said.  

While left-wing groups supported Gualmini’s move, EPP and Renew lawmakers have taken the opposite approach in their amendments to the proposal. These include increasing the number of required criteria, making reclassifying workers more difficult. The Uber Files leaks have only intensified the friction between the two sides — and emboldened left-wing voices to push for their vision to win out. 

Their argument: The leaks show that Uber can’t be trusted to play by the rules when it comes to lobbying, engendering skepticism of efforts to water down the proposal.

“ … Uber’s fingerprints are all over some of the amendments tabled on this file,” Green MEP Kim van Sparrentak warned her counterparts during an employment committee meeting on Tuesday. “These are amendments trying to weaken the presumption of an employment relationship, the transparency or trying to limit the scope.” 

Gualmini took a more nuanced approach but nonetheless called for a “strong response” following the allegations in the leaks. “Maybe this will help the urgency, the necessity, to have a good agreement, first of all within Parliament, and then with the Commission and the Council.” 

Lobbying playbook

The files also call into question Uber’s current playbook for lobbying in Brussels — and lawmakers’ wariness of such efforts could make it difficult for the company to push back against unfavorable changes to the platform work proposal.

Van Sparrentak and her fellow Green MEP Daniel Freund have called for an investigation into Uber’s past lobbying behavior — even going as far as questioning whether Uber lobbyists should be banned from the Parliament’s premises.

“Entering in a dialogue with companies you’re regulating only makes sense when they act within a legal framework,” Van Sparrentak said. “Uber obviously doesn’t.” 

Other lawmakers, like The Left’s Leïla Chaibi, have called attention to the practices of Move EU, a registered lobby group whose members include Uber. Move EU has done much of Uber’s lobbying work, including responding to different policy developments and even setting up two events with EPP MEP Radan Kanev.

“In the beginning, Uber lobbyists intervened with their [own] Uber public affairs people, but now they hide,” Chaibi said, saying Move EU “officially represents Uber’s interests. They are on the attack, seeking lawmakers we’ve never seen before.” 

The lawmakers in charge of the platform work file have already agreed on a hearing with Uber to address issues highlighted in the Uber Files investigation. Meanwhile, work on the file goes on, with another meeting between negotiators on Wednesday. Gualmini doesn’t want to go into detail about her plans to reconcile the two camps’ differing views on the reclassification criteria, as work is still in a “very early” stage. She’s confident, though, that an employment committee vote on the proposal is possible by October. 

Uber, for its part, is in damage control. 

“Some of Uber’s past behavior was unacceptable,” a spokesperson said, adding that since then new guidelines for public policy people were issued. “We remain committed to working with the European Parliament in a transparent way to make a constructive and positive contribution to policy discussions.”

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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