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Will Uber drivers benefit from the biggest stock exchange debut in years?

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Private hire drivers protest outside the offices of Uber in London
Private hire drivers protest outside the offices of Uber in London -
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REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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Top executives, early venture capitalists and board members stand to reap benefits from their stakes in Uber, the decade-old ride-sharing giant that went public on Thursday.

But ahead of Uber's debut on the New York Stock Exchange, drivers across the world went on a strike to demand better working conditions.

The question that begs to be asked, therefore, is: will Uber drivers, the main cogs in the wheel of the company valued at €92 billion, benefit from the biggest initial public offering (IPO) in years?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Uber says its long-time drivers — 1.1 million of 3.9 million workers who have completed at least 2,500 trips before April 7 including at least one ride in 2019 — will be eligible for "driver appreciation rewards".

The bonuses will depend on the number of rides completed by a driver. They will range from $100 (€88.95) for drivers who have completed 2,500 trips to $40,000 (€35,578) for drivers who have completed 40,000 trips. Drivers can keep the cash or use the money to purchase stocks in Uber at the IPO price.

Early last month, Uber also revealed plans to offer a one-time payout, by the end of April, to more than one million drivers, for a total around $300 (€266) million.

Trade unions have said that this amounted to a paltry sum, sometimes even as low as $70 (€62). Some drivers did not receive the payout, unions have said.

Drivers set to lose more, say experts

Uber has long treated its drivers as independent contractors in a "gig economy". This means its workers do not get the employment rights that are guaranteed to employees in more traditional jobs, such as a minimum wage, sick leave, health insurance and so on.

While companies like Uber argue that it gives flexibility to drivers, critics say these practices lead to exploitation.

Driver dissatisfaction has been high and is now likely to get worse. Uber has admitted so in its IPO prospectus. “In particular, as we aim to reduce Driver incentives to improve our financial performance, we expect Driver dissatisfaction will generally increase," the company said in its IPO filing.

James Farrar, chair of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain, while speaking to EuroNews, said that the early venture capitalists in Silicon Valley are going to make an "absolute fortune" on the Uber IPO.

"The drivers and the communities will certainly not benefit. Currently, drivers earn £5 an hour while the minimum wage is £8.20 in the UL. Their earnings are likely to dip further, added Farrar.

"The business model of Uber has been the immediacy and availability of networking. But what has happened is it has oversupplied the marketplace," said Farrar.

He said that a study conducted by the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission last year showed that 85% of drivers were earning below minimum wage and 42% of the time was wasted, causing congestion.

"And the drivers are obviously not paid for their wasted time," said Farrar, who added that "fringe benefits" such as payouts and stocks were an eyewash. "These benefits do not help if Uber does not pay the drivers what they are owed legally."

While Uber needs drivers at the wheel for the time being, it imagines a future with automated cars that would eliminate the need of human drivers.

Uber, however, maintains that drivers remain at the heart of their service.

"We can’t succeed without them – and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road. Whether it’s being able to track your earnings or stronger insurance protections, we’ll continue working to improve the experience for and with drivers," a spokesperson for Uber said recently.

Uber's rocky road in Europe

While Uber is available in over 70 countries and 600 cities, its entry in Europe has been fraught with problems.

It first launched in Paris in December 2011 but has been met with protests in the city since.

Several European countries, including Hungary and Bulgaria, have banned the app. Some specific services of the company like UberPop and UberX have been banned in cities in France, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands. Problems emerged on the basis of regulation because these services allow unlicensed drivers to pick up passengers in their own cars, causing licenced taxi drivers to protest.

In July 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that any European country could legally ban UberPop without having to notify the European Union.

In 2015, Farrar launched an ambitious legal strike in England along with co-claimant Yaseen Aslam, to prove that Uber drivers were workers who deserved employment rights. They won the case at the employment tribunal, but Uber has challenged it in the Supreme Court.

Early last month, the European Parliament approved new minimum rights for workers in the gig economy, which would apply to companies like Uber. The new rules will apply to those who work a minimum of three hours per week and 12 hours per month on average. These rules are applicable to casual or short-term workers, including trainees and apprentices.

In Europe, it's not just regulatory laws that have not let Uber take off as it has in the United States. Over the years, other ride-sharing companies have taken hold in different European countries.

How does Uber compare with other high-valued IPOs?

Uber may be the biggest IPO in years, but raising about €7.2 billion when it went public, barely comes close to the biggest IPO Alibaba, which raised a staggering €22.27 billion. It also pales in comparison to the next biggest IPO, the Agricultural Bank of China, which raised €17.09 billion, General Motors which raised about €17.8 billion, and others like Facebook and Deutsche Telekom.