SYDNEY, June 28 (Reuters) - Australia's workplace regulator on Wednesday said it is investigating U.S. ride-hailing firm Uber Technologies Inc over the way it recruits drivers, after a drivers group sought employee rather than subcontractor status. The Fair Work Ombudsman plans to focus on whether the San Francisco-based startup, which makes apps that allow people to book journeys on their smartphones, is in breach of Australian workplace rules, a spokesman said.
"We have started an investigation," the spokesman said. "That is all that can be said at this time."
The ombudsman is empowered to take legal action to force firms to comply with workplace laws and pay employees minimum wage and retirement benefits.
Uber defended the way it engages drivers, saying it allowed them more independence.
The investigation is Uber's latest brush with authorities. In March, the San Francisco-based startup lost a court battle against Britain's Transport for London (TfL) over English-language requirements for drivers, but was granted an appeal on Tuesday. The Australian probe comes after RideShare Drivers United, a group representing some Uber drivers, earlier this month sought classification as employees entitled to compensation under Australian law, rather than subcontractors.
"More than 60,000 Australian driver-partners choose to drive using the Uber app because they like setting their own schedule and being their own boss," Uber said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
"We will be happy to assist the Fair Work Ombudsman with any questions they may have," Uber said.
Uber has endured a tumultuous few months with allegations of sexism and bullying at the company leading to the ousting of chief executive and co-founder Travis Kalanick. (Reporting by James Regan; Editing by Christopher Cushing)