Calls for Hong Kong government to clear up legal future of Uber

Legal and transport experts say government is confusing company and customers over legality of its ride-hailing services since crackdown

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 11:03pm

The government has been criticised for ambiguity and delay over the legality of popular ride-hailing app Uber, which critics say leave consumers at risk and are unfair to the company.

As the firm ramped up its push for new drivers and passengers with an aggressive advertising campaign, confusion remained after the government’s crackdown last year that appeared to threaten the firm’s operations.

Wesley Wan Wai-hei, a member of the Transport Advisory Committee, which reports to the government, said officials were ambiguous over Uber’s legal position, and accused them of sending confusing messages to the public.

“So far the government hasn’t made its position clear on this issue,” he said.

Wan said the government should stop delaying, as it will be unfair to users as well as Uber, with its future up in the air.

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“If the government is convinced Uber’s services are unlawful then it should state it clearly and explicitly,” he said.

“Now users are confused as to whether they should use Uber’s services while it is also unfair to Uber which may need to rethink its investment in Hong Kong.”

Wan called on the government to amend the law so as to lower the threshold for applying for hire car permits in Hong Kong, which are limited to 1,500.

In August last year, seven Uber drivers were arrested, each for using a car for hire without a permit and for driving without third-party insurance, while police raided the company’s offices after complaints by local taxi drivers.

In January two drivers admitted providing illegal car hire and were fined HK$7,000, with their driving licences suspended for a year. The other five pleaded not guilty and their cases were adjourned to November this year.

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And stiff competition could be on its way for Uber in the form of the government’s trial of a plan to get 600 premium taxis on the roads through franchises.

The government, without naming any companies, only repeated its stance that it is illegal to carry paying passengers without a hire car permit.

But lawyer Daniel Wong Kwok-tung agreed with Wan that the government should review the system and allow Uber to compete if there was demand.

He said: “With the confusing messages delivered by the government, it is unfair to the passengers as they don’t know if they have a valid insurance policy protection.”

A Transport Department spokeswoman said it was studying ways to enhance hire car permit applications, especially to allow new market entrants, “without affecting hire car’s current position in the transport hierarchy and the current regulatory regime”. She said they kept reminding the public about the legal issues of using a hire car.

Both Uber Hong Kong and MTR’s advertising agent JCDecaux Transport did not reply to Postenquiries.