San Francisco (AFP)

Uber and its American competitor Lyft could completely stop their services on Friday in California, a drastic measure that would put tens of thousands of drivers out of work, if the courts decide that the two platforms must immediately reclassify these self-employed workers as employees.

The two leaders in the reservation of cars with driver (VTC) are engaged in a standoff with the authorities of the fifth largest economy in the world (in terms of GDP, ahead of France or India).

The battle is closely watched by the many other governments critical of the "gig economy", whose self-employed workers do not enjoy social or minimal protections.

A California court ordered Uber and Lyft on Aug. 10 to change the status of drivers within ten days, in accordance with state law in effect since January, and drafted with both platforms in the sights.

The two San Francisco-based groups have asked for a delay, and are awaiting a response Wednesday or Thursday.

"We do not know if we will continue to drive. We do not know if the threat is real," said Alexander Palacios, driver for Uber in Los Angeles since 2017.

"But it is well done for them, because they are not correct with the drivers. (...) They recover 50 to 60% of the price of the trip".

- "No time" -

The possibility of such a sudden disappearance of a service born in California, and widely accepted, seems unreal to drivers and users.

Independent analyst Rob Enderle believes change was inevitable, but "now is not the time. (Due to the pandemic) a lot of drivers are in survival mode, and Uber and Lyft are losing a lot of money . They could go bankrupt ".

Uber has so far never managed to turn a profit. In the first half of 2020, the group lost $ 4.7 billion, mainly due to the collapse in demand for car trips during the health crisis.

The company has laid off around a quarter of its employees.

Uber Eats, its meal delivery service, which is not affected by the ongoing legal battle, for its part doubled its revenues in the second quarter.

But that does not compensate for the difficulties of its main activity.

And most importantly, "other left-wing states are going to move in the same direction as California. Uber is going to have to accelerate the transition to self-driving cars. They cannot afford to treat drivers like employees. Costs would skyrocket. ", adds Rob Enderle.

The companies are engaged in a lawsuit against California, but they bet above all on the referendum which they organize in November in the State, for or against "Proposition 22".

- Flexibility -

The proposed law "protects flexibility and provides social benefits, including a minimum guaranteed income, reimbursement of expenses, health subsidies and insurance in the event of a work accident," argues a campaign email sent by Lyft to its users.

This level of social protection would remain lower than that to which employees are entitled, but the two platforms affirm, with supporting surveys, that most drivers are very attached to the flexibility of the app's operation.

According to Lyft, 86% of its California drivers drive less than 20 hours per week because they are students, retirees, or have some other job.

If both groups were forced to change their model for good, the task would be monumental: they would have to reimagine their platforms, hire thousands of drivers and human resources departments, set up timetables ...

"We would then have a much smaller service, with much higher prices, probably concentrated in the city centers," said Dara Khosrowshahi, the boss of Uber, in an interview with MSNBC.

Charles, who has been driving passengers to San Francisco for more than a year, welcomes the compromise advanced by the platforms, but that does not prevent him from looking for salaried work.

"It looks like the business is going to disappear," he explains. "I appreciate the flexibility but it's too uncertain a job and I don't thrive."

© 2020 AFP