The Quebec government says it isn’t budging after an ultimatum was delivered Tuesday by the ride-sharing application Uber.
The multinational, which competes with the taxi industry, said it will pack it in if Quebec doesn’t cave in by Oct. 14, the date of the renewal of a pilot project allowing Uber to operate in the province. The government said all Uber drivers must undergo 35 hours of training, the same requirement for taxi drivers, who had previously needed 150 hours of training.
“The goal here for us is to sit down with the government and find ways to concretely operate, but we know for sure if they impose 35 hours of training, we’ll need to leave,” Guillemette said, insisting the ride-sharing’s rating method and Uber’s own guidance to drivers are sufficient to provide exceptional service.
Other terms of the pilot project, with which Guillemette did not take issue, are for police to conduct criminal background checks of drivers and for annual mechanical inspections of cars.
Guillemette held his news conference at the Notman House downtown, the location of the company’s first office when it set up shop in Montreal. It has since moved to an office on Richardson St. in Pointe-St-Charles.
The company now has about 50 full-time employees, and its partner drivers make up the equivalent of 3,000 full-time employees, according to Guillemette.
Most drivers are part-time workers, so forcing them to undergo a full week of training is excessive, Guillemette argued.
“The beauty of the Uber platform is the flexibility the driver partner has to come and go and decide when they want to work,” he said.
Uber has been making waves for the taxi industry and the Couillard government since it became a part of Montreal’s transportation landscape. The taxi industry complained Uber was engaging in unfair competition, since its drivers didn’t hold expensive permits required of taxi drivers, some of which are sold on the resale market for nearly $200,000.
Transport Minister Laurent Lessard said the government has been more than patient with the California firm, which he suggested has mastered the art of stalling almost from the moment it arrived.
He pointed out there are other firms using the same kind of technology already in the field, with properly trained drivers using electric cars such as Téo taxi, ready to step up and provide consumers the same service.
“We are not in a negotiation process,” Lessard told reporters in Quebec City. “We tabled a project and we indicated the elements. So only they can decide what will happen the 14th. I am open to hearing how they propose to attain the objective, but we are firm on the targets.”
Sounding at times exasperated, Lessard said he can’t believe a giant multinational that developed groundbreaking technology can’t come up with a way to give their drivers an online 35-hour training course.
At a news conference organized outside its Hochelaga-Maisonneuve offices, the union representing taxi drivers said it is not surprised Uber doesn’t want to adhere to the terms of the pilot project, saying the company has flaunted the rules since day one.
“What Uber wants is not to have to adhere to any rules,” said Wilson Jean-Paul, the spokesperson for the Regroupement des travailleurs autonomes Métallos. “But I’m a bit surprised, because it’s just 15 hours more of training.”
Jean-Paul was referring to Lessard’s estimate that Uber drivers already undergo roughly 20 hours of training to drive in Quebec.
Jean-Paul said he and his members will “be overjoyed” at Uber’s departure, but said he’s not yet ready to sound Uber’s death knell.
“We think this is just a threat by Uber, but so far the minister seems to be firm; we’ll see if he stays firm until Oct. 14,” he said. “We won’t let this go.”
RTAM-Metallos has brought several lawsuits against Uber, including a class-action suit that also names the province, blaming it for a decline in the value of taxi permits, which are required to drive a taxi in the province.
Meanwhile, the Board of Trade of Greater Montreal urged Uber and the government to find some common ground that would keep the service in Montreal.
“If this decision (by Uber) is carried out, it has to be seen as setback,” board president Michel Leblanc said in a statement. “While Montreal is positioning itself to welcome innovative businesses, the incapacity to modernize the (existing) regulatory framework to allow Uber to operate in Quebec sends a very bad signal to start-ups here and to the investors who provide risk capital.”
CAQ MNA François Bonnardel echoed Leblanc’s concerns, saying he is worried about the kind of message losing Uber will send to the rest of the planet.
Québec solidaire MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was blunt, accusing Uber of trying to blackmail the government.
“If Uber refuses to respect Quebec’s laws and it decides to leave, the reaction of QS is clear – good riddance,” Nadeau-Dubois said.
Incumbent Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, on the municipal election campaign trail in Lachine, offered his opinion on Uber’s announcement.
“We have always said from the start, there is place for Uber, there is place for taxis, but what we have to ensure is that there is equity in terms of regulations,” Coderre said. “That doesn’t mean to have too many rules — it means we have to have a canvas that permits this equity.
“We don’t talk about it too much, but there is also the question of doing background checks for criminal records. To me that is essential. And now we learn this morning they are saying ‘if it is like that, if you don’t change this, we are going.’
“An ultimatum is an ultimatum. If those people are saying ‘well, I’m against that kind of training and by Oct. 14 we’re leaving,’ well I’m sorry, tough luck. I’m not going to cry and I’m not going to lose any sleep. But I think it’s important that they address the real issue.”
Coderre said Quebec’s stance isn’t a question of being against the sharing economy and noted Uber’s recent problems in London. He also characterized Uber’s stance as “an attitude problem” and accused the company of having been “condescending” in the past. He noted the city has reached agreements with similar companies like Airbnb.
“You have to put things in perspective. When someone says ‘it isn’t worki?ng and we’re leaving,’ you say ‘listen we won’t hold you back.’ But what is the problem with having minimal measures (for training)? At the same time, what’s the problem with making sure you have a screening process to make sure you’re protecting people (through checking for) criminal records?”
Kevin Mio, James Mennie and Paul Cherry of the Montreal Gazette contributed to this report.