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Uber loses final UK appeal over driver employment status

Cheap taxi alternative app Uber has lost its final appeal over the classification of its drivers as ‘workers’, but it’s still not clear what the wider implications will be.

This marks the culmination of a legal action that started six years ago when a couple of Uber drivers – Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar – initiated legal action to force the company to classify them as ‘workers’ rather than contractors. The won their case in 2016 and have had to go through years of appeals from Uber to get to this point.

This designation is also distinct from ‘employee’ however, and seems to fall somewhere between the two. Here’s what UK law says workers are entitled to.

  • getting the National Minimum Wage
  • protection against unlawful deductions from wages
  • the statutory minimum level of paid holiday
  • the statutory minimum length of rest breaks
  • to not work more than 48 hours on average per week or to opt out of this right if they choose
  • protection against unlawful discrimination
  • protection for ‘whistleblowing’ – reporting wrongdoing in the workplace
  • to not be treated less favourably if they work part-time

It looks like Uber has addressed a lot of these since the legal process started, for example not punishing drivers for declining jobs, but this seems to set the above rights in stone. Technically the ruling only applies to the people named in the action, but it’s hard to see how it won’t now be applied to all Uber drivers.

“I am overjoyed and greatly relieved by this decision which will bring relief to so many workers in the gig economy who so desperately need it,” said Aslam. “During the six years of these proceedings, we have watched the government commission and then shelve a review of the gig economy yet do nothing to help us. I hope in future the government will choose to carry out its duty to enforce the law and protect the most vulnerable from exploitation.”

“This ruling will fundamentally re-order the gig economy and bring an end to rife exploitation of workers by means of algorithmic and contract trickery,” said Farrar. “Uber drivers are cruelly sold a false dream of endless flexibility and entrepreneurial freedom. The reality has been illegally low pay, dangerously long hours and intense digital surveillance. I am delighted that workers at last have some remedy because of this ruling, but the government must urgently strengthen the law so that gig workers may also have access to sick pay and protection from unfair dismissal.”

“We respect the Court’s decision which focussed on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016,” said Jamie Heywood, Uber’s Regional General Manager for Northern and Eastern Europe. “Since then we have made some significant changes to our business, guided by drivers every step of the way. These include giving even more control over how they earn and providing new protections like free insurance in case of sickness or injury. We are committed to doing more and will now consult with every active driver across the UK to understand the changes they want to see.”

Heywood’s statement indicates Uber still reckons this ruling still has limited scope but what if, for example, that consultation concludes with drivers saying they’re not bothered about holiday? Is Uber still free to ignore that ‘worker’ entitlement? Presumably Uber will also be entitled to impose tighter rules in the other direction too, such as demanding a minimum amount of time worked or precluding drivers to doing other gigs at the same time.

Uber is considered the quintessential representative of the ‘gig economy’, in which casual work is made available via mobile apps on a job-by-job basis. This offers maximum flexibility to the prospective worker but provides no perks or job security. Some people reckon this is excessively exploitative while others see it as a source of income for people that may otherwise be excluded from the job market.

The US state of California recently went through a similar process to this and decided to keep the drivers as contractors. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on fares and on the number of drivers Uber can use in the UK. Of course all workers have rights but if some choose to relinquish a few of them in return for greater flexibility, isn’t that their business?

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One comment

  1. Avatar ian simpson 22/02/2021 @ 5:25 pm

    There are some interesting potential knock-on implications here…. Covid has cost the government a lot so they will no-doubt be looking to rake in extra cash from anywhere they can. One has to wonder if this is now setting the further precedent for PAYE and IR35 and retrospectively going back for 6 years potential lost revenue?. I don’t know if they will or not but you can clearly see why they might like to.

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