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Wednesday, August 12, 2015, 08:35

HK police get tough with Uber

By Kahon Chan in Hong Kong

Hong Kong police have arrested five Uber drivers and three Uber employees — over a year after the ride-hailing app began in the city.

The three male employees working at Uber’s driver recruitment office in Cheung Sha Wan, Kowloon, were arrested for aiding and abetting five Uber drivers accepting rewards for carrying passengers and also for aiding and abetting drivers not taking out third-party risk insurance for vehicles.

Officers seized computers, documents and white boards from the Cheung Sha Wan premises after a search lasting three hours on Tuesday. The police later confiscated nine MacBook computers from an Uber office in Sheung Wan district, but no one was arrested there.

Among things seized from the Kowloon office was a notice board listing a handful of websites and e-mail addresses. One line read “bonus information for cargo vans” in Chinese. Another hyperlink was referred as “account information (including payroll)”. Some links were directed to Google online forms.

The raid followed the arrest of five Uber drivers on Tuesday morning for carrying passengers for financial reward without hire car permits. Undercover officers used the Uber app to place orders and pay for their rides. These cost HK$70 to HK$170, and were settled by credit cards.

Bruce Hung Hin-kau, chief inspector of Kowloon West’s traffic unit, told reporters earlier on Tuesday the mobile app platform takes a fifth of the fare and drivers pocket the rest. He said law enforcement officers investigating the case were confident of getting convictions in court.

Hong Kong law sets clear boundaries on the legality of Uber drivers. They are eligible to apply for hire car permits under the category “private service (limousines)”, and there were 243 permit holders in May. Those without permits but accepting rewards for passenger rides were liable to a fine of HK$5,000 and three months in prison.

Barrister Luk Wai-hung said Uber, which has openly recruited the drivers and uses the mobile app platform to accept orders, might be liable to conspiracy or aiding and abetting offenses relating to drivers breaching the law.

The responsibility of Uber executives hinges on their knowledge of and involvement in drivers transporting passengers without permits, Luk said.

It has been reported that Uber processes payments through a Dutch company. But the barrister said prosecutors might not need overseas bank records in order to get convictions.

Evidence given by drivers, in addition to records seized from the Uber office, might sufficiently establish a flow of payments between passengers and drivers via Uber. Any person convicted of the conspiracy charge could face the same penalty terms as drivers, Luk added.

Sam Gellman is the current general manager of Uber Hong Kong, who also oversees business in Taiwan and Macao. He led the expansion in Europe in 2012 and had previously headed the offices in London and Singapore. He remains head of the Asia expansion of Uber, according to recent reports.

In a statement, Uber spokesperson Harold Li said the company welcomes the “opportunity” to “work closely with the authorities toward updated regulations that put the safety and interests of riders and drivers first”.

The company again claimed all drivers were insured, but the police noted the arrested drivers were not properly insured for third parties.
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