Uber has been forced to defend its very public reaction to Transport for London's decision to axe its licence over concerns it was "not fit and proper" to operate in London, after an MP said its response was "aggressive" and "belligerent".
Peter Kyle, MP for Hove, also questioned whether Uber was "hypocritical" for saying TfL's refusal to renew its licence put the livelihoods of 40,000 drivers at risk. Weeks after making that claim, Uber challenged a tribunal decision that found a group of its drivers were not self-employed, as Uber claims, but were in fact "workers" who should be entitled to the minimum wage, sick pay, and holiday pay.
During a grilling before the business select committee chaired by Rachel Reeves MP, Kyle asked Andrew Byrne, Uber's head of public policy: "Do you regret the aggressive nature of your response to the TfL decision? Why were you so belligerent?
"Your reaction was [that] TfL was putting 40,000 people out of business – [and at the same time] you are going to court denying any responsibility [for those drivers] in the first place. So the word on everyone's lips was 'hypocrite', wasn't it?"
Uber had argued that TfL's decision, which it is appealing, would cost drivers their jobs and accused the regulator of having "caved in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice".
"I think the business absolutely accepts in some places it's had the wrong attitude and needs to change," Byrne said. "I think there was a very high strength of feeling from people in the business. Hopefully we can see a path forward now with TfL."
Byrne was questioned for more than an hour and a half alongside Dan Warne, UK managing director of Deliveroo, and Hugo Martin, director of legal affairs at courier firm Hermes.
The committee is exploring how worker rights could be improved at gig economy companies that rely on self-employed drivers to do the work. Being self-employed means having no right to sick pay, holiday pay, or protection against unfair dismissal.
Uber said the business could "cope" with giving workers more benefits but that it would cost "tens of millions" and would mean "exerting more control" over drivers. Deliveroo, after being pressed repeatedly by Reeves, estimated it would cost customers an additional £1 per driver, per delivery.
Hermes said the bill to pay its couriers sick pay and holiday leave – and to cover national insurance payments – would exceed £58 million.
The committee pointed to evidence it had received from a Hermes courier who allegedly had their contract cancelled after a baby was born prematurely.
Referring to that example, MPs questioned whether Hermes' business model was fair to couriers. Under its terms and conditions, a courier must ensure a substitute is lined up to any shifts they were unable to do, including when they are sick.
Hugo Martin, director of legal affairs at Hermes, said that case – if it happened at all – was "not acceptable", adding that the business had since sent around a new code of conduct to all staff. "All we can do is apologise," he said.
"The pressure of a vastly growing business puts pressure on people."
Reeves also pressed Uber on its safety record after the company revealed 25% of drivers worked more than 40 hours per week.
She said she had heard of Uber drivers working excessive shifts, not taking proper breaks, and sleeping in cars. The committee, which will continue on Wednesday, has asked Uber to write a letter to confirm how many of its drivers worked above those hours per week.
Sara Spary is a consumer business correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Sara Spary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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