Driver who won case against Uber for workers’ rights and protections spoke to Yonas Makoni
It was an emotional moment for James Farrar, Yaseen Aslam and the other drivers who brought the case against Uber, when the Supreme Court finally ruled in February that drivers were to be classified as workers with basic workers’ rights and protections. It marked the culmination of a five-year David and Goliath battle that many have predicted could be the beginning of the end for the gig economy in Britain. These workers are now taking the next steps to transform the sector.
Farrar’s fight against the company first began after he was assaulted by a passenger in 2015 and Uber refused to give up her name and contact details to the police. According to Uber, their only role was in facilitating a contract between the driver and the passenger by providing them with the technology platform. Since Farrar was considered to be self-employed, the company had no liability towards him.
Subsequently, he began working with Yaseen Aslam, another Uber worker who had already begun organising drivers, and law firm Bates Wells, who saw that Farrar and Aslam had a strong case against the company.
In 2016, Farrar and Aslam brought their case to the Employment Tribunal and won decisively. Farrar and Aslam formed their own union, the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU), and brought other Uber drivers on board. Four years of appeals later, they finally won the case in the Supreme Court on 19 February, with the six judges voting unanimously in the workers’ favour.
The Court decided that, since drivers were in a position of vulnerability and dependence on Uber, the company had certain responsibilities - including providing their workers with a basic minimum wage, holiday pay and protection from discrimination. It argued that Uber’s claim that drivers were self-employed and that Uber was simply a middleman amounted to only so much contractual rhetoric, clearly designed by the company to weasel out of its legal obligations.
“It was a magnificently moral judgement”, Farrar says. “I actually found it quite moving after everything we’d been through. I couldn’t have imagined that they would have come around the way they did”.
According to Farrar, not only did the judgement clearly show that Uber drivers are workers, but “if you read what [Supreme Court judge] Leggatt said in his judgement, it’s going to be very hard for Uber not to be an employer in the future”.
Farrar directs this argument against Uber’s claim that the company has changed its business model since the case was brought forward and that the judgement only directly applies to the workers who brought the case in 2016. “It’s technically true, but it will also be true for every other case in the future. So either respect the ruling or face a tsunami of litigation”.
Despite celebrating the judgement, Farrar is well aware that the battle isn’t over. "I don’t want to pour water on the ruling just yet, I think it’s a fabulous ruling and it’s a great arrow in our armoury, but it’s not gonna be enough.”
The laws aren’t new, yet it took Farrar and his co-claimants four years of legal battle to have confirmed that they were entitled to basic employment rights. And despite being the least protected cab drivers, Uber and minicab drivers are the most vulnerable to the strict regulatory environment.
"If [minicab drivers] accept a booking directly rather than with an operator, that’s a criminal offense. If you come up to me and say “can you take me to Brixton for a tenner” and I say “yeah go on then”, that’s a criminal offense!
If I make one mistake, I’ll have a criminal record. And any number of things I could do wrong and my license could just be revoked.
Through our license fee, we fund a cab enforcement unit in the Metropolitan Police, 65 officers who are on the street all the time. Now, I don’t deny all that, that’s all very good, that’s keeping the industry very safe, secure, well-policed. But then when we want minimum wage everybody walks away! TfL doesn’t wanna know, the Mayor doesn’t wanna know, HMRC doesn’t wanna know. And then up to you, go write your own complaint, find yourself a lawyer and go to court to get your minimum wage. That’s just wrong."
So what’s the next step? Firstly, Farrar and Aslam are campaigning to inform drivers of how the decision affects them and to combat Uber’s distorted version of the events. They are also calling on Uber drivers to make claims for compensation.
‘Strategic litigation’ is also an important tool. Farrar points out the difference between being a ‘worker’ and being an ‘employee’ and that there are several rights not covered under ‘worker status’, including sick pay, pensions and protection from unfair dismissal, that the ADCU will try to fight for in the future.
They are also currently pursuing lawsuits in Amsterdam, where Uber is based, related to algorithmic transparency and ‘automated decision-making’ (or 'robo-firing'). Uber, Farrar predicts, will hide the ways in which their algorithms exercise control over drivers in order to pretend that they have substantially changed their business model. He sees these types of litigation as being an important way the movement can build steam and gain big victories in the here and now, while the work of organising workers in the industry is underway.
But the most important thing is that drivers get unionised.
"Neither HMRC or Sadiq are stepping up right now. So it’s up to these drivers.
Join a union - join the ADCU or GMB. In the long run, the most reliable way to victory is bigger and better and greater collective power. We can’t leave it to the courts or the government and rely on them to do the right thing."
Through the ADCU, Farrar and Aslam are dedicating themselves to building this collective power. The gig economy is a relatively new frontier for organisers, however. Union membership is low - in OECD countries, workers in ‘on-standard jobs’ are 50% less likely to be unionised - and companies are fighting tooth and nail against any attempt to organise their workforces. But Farrar is confident that this can be overturned over time.
"We’ve come a long way, we put a lot of energy into a movement. There was very little or no organising in the sector before we came along in 2015... Organising is hard work and it’s trust and it takes years. You build up that trust and presence. You know, Woody Allen says '50% of success is showing up', it’s the same for organising."
For Farrar and Aslam, the ‘triple threat’ of strategic litigation, campaigning and 'shoe-leather organising' could well be enough to make radical changes to the industry in favour of workers. Their victory is just a taste of what workers can achieve when they fight back.
James Farrar will be speaking at an online strike rally hosted by South London People's Assembly on Tuesday 16 March at 7pm. Further details to be confirmed.
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