The Story Of Uber Files In India
The team that broke the 'Uber Files' story in India speaks to BQ Prime on the platform's operations and regulatory run-ins.
“Basically, Uber launches, and then there is a regulatory and legal sh*itstorm”, revealed the cab aggregator’s former lobbyist Mark MacGann, who has come forward as source of the Uber Files. MacGann on Tuesday that he leaked 18.69 GB of emails, text messages and company records to The Guardian newspaper, which shared it with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 42 other media partners.
In India, the documents, which spanned between 2013-17, were shared with The Indian Express newspaper.
The daily’s executive editor Ritu Sarin, who led the coverage with her team, spoke to BQ Prime on Uber’s operations and regulatory run-ins in India.
While the quantum of data Uber Files threw wasn’t daunting, it had its own set of challenges, Sarin said.
To elaborate, she pointed out, for an offshore investigation we largely maybe dealing with 90% of Indian subjects, but the other partners are interested maybe in 10% of them. 'But here with 180 [global] reporters involved, we really had to take a 360-degree view of the entire story to make sure we are not missing the wood for the trees’.
It was very evident from the beginning that the aftermath, the consequences and the fallout of the 2014 rape case is something that would be important for us in India. And we have woven quite a few stories around that. The other thing was the very obvious tax avoidance strategy of Uber, and we did find a lot of presentations and emails which reflected that. We also had to do a lot of ground reporting, both in terms of the rape case and in respect of the regulatory mess of UberRitu Sarin, Executive Editor, The Indian Express
Sarin elaborated that for Uber’s response to the Delhi rape case, the team reached out to the families of both the victim and the accused. The team spoke to Uber drivers, asked their plight, their problems with the company etc. And tested the '’ that Uber boasted it had its driver partners install post the incident.
"As far as regulation is concerned, we have done spot reporting, in fact from several states of the country. Because Uber did, after the rape incident, sign several Memorandum of Understanding with several state governments. We wanted to get a ground reality check as to what happened to those MoUs." - Ritu Sarin, Executive Editor, The Indian Express
We had to get inputs from several state governments and departments to find out if what Uber had signed up with these departments and state governments remains on paper or there's something on the ground. I can’t talk about it much because the story is yet to appear, she said.
In Sarin’s view, the tone and tenor of the suggests that Uber attempted to sidestep, for instance, India’s service tax law. ‘We now have GST. They are still troubled with that, with some notices going to the company till very recently. So that is one thing that stands out’. Further, there was the payments issue on Uber app that was ironed out by the Reserve Bank of India, she said.
It is very apparent that there are a lot of legal issues and imbroglios that as we speak continue to be on the plate of the company.Ritu Sarin, Executive Editor, The Indian Express
Has India Fixed The Regulatory Gaps Uber Has Allegedly Violated?
Some of Indian Express’ reports vindicate the perception about Uber using the whole spectrum of strategies to bypass laws and exploit gaps in regulation, Saurabh Bhattacharjee, associate professor at National Law University, Bengaluru said. The example of the Kill Switch or 'panic button' and other forms of obstruction that have been discussed support the public perception that trade unions and labour activists have often spoken of, he said.
'I would also like to highlight certain aspects of labor protection that come from these reports. One was the specific reference to emails about resistance to sharing data about drivers. And it's interesting that Uber consistently refuses to accept the drivers as its ‘employees’ or even as central to their business. Yet, the very resistance to giving up any data pertaining to the drivers highlights how integral drivers are to their entire edifice.Saurabh Bhattacharjee, Associate Professor, NLS Bengaluru
What compounds this problem is the lack of a regulatory system that comprehensively addresses the challenges of gig economy workers. Even the latest attempt via the Social Security Code 2020 is very minimal, he pointed out.
The Social Security Code 2020, while extending welfare measures to gig, and platform unorganised workers, empowers the central government to set up social security funds for them. It requires gig/platform companies to allot 1-2% of their annual turnover for social security funds of their workers. But as BQ Prime , gig economy companies will look to pass this cost to workers.
Even these minimal benefits are a long way from becoming a reality with no clear roadmap from the central and state governments, who have to frame rules. Four labour codes have replaced over 40 archaic central laws. As of February, this year, as per compiled by law firm JSA, the total number of rules published by the States/ Union Territories are as follows:
Code on Wages, 2019: 27
Industrial Relations Code, 2020: 23
Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions Code, 2020: 18
Code on Social Security, 2020: 21
These rules are yet to be notified.
There’s a lot that needs to be thought through on regulating the gig economy, Sajai Singh, partner at JSA, said.
We don't understand the aggregator concept in law and it's just, you know slowly being understood because there are so many nuances - whether you're an employee or independent contractor with the driver. The Motor Vehicle Aggregator Guidelines 2020 came out and there’s a view that they are not inclusive. It excludes food and goods delivery people. Labour is also a subject where States come in. So, there’s plurality of views there as wellSajai Singh, Partner, JSA
Listen to the full conversation here: