Uber drivers win the right to be classed as workers as opposed to self-employed, in a huge step forward for the labour movement, reports Lindsey German
The victory of two Uber drivers in a London employment tribunal today is a victory for us all. Uber claims not – it says the case only refers to the two drivers who brought it and that it will, in any case, appeal. But it has blown open the fiction beloved of so many employers that their employees are ‘self-employed’. The ruling said that the drivers are deserving of paid break and holidays, and that they must have the minimum wage.
Uber are by no means the only company which propagates this fiction. The recent strike by Deliveroo delivery bikers highlighted the way that companies use apps to control everything about their employment, including logos and where and when they operate, while denying them basic rights. The ‘gig economy’ covers these and all sorts of other work which is flexible – for example many delivery drivers and catering workers.
Dressed up as the acme of flexibility and beneficial to workers as well as employers, in fact this is an increasingly widespread means of employers using flexibility to try to evade their responsibilities for workers’ rights. The response of Uber to the tribunal ruling was to claim that the vast majority of its drivers wanted this flexibility and would not be able to work in the same way if they were employees. It may be that many of the workers do want flexibility, but it is also the case that this flexibility can exist alongside decent wages, holiday pay and proper breaks. Conversely are there expected to believe that there are groups of workers who want to be paid below the minimum wage and not receive holiday pay?
The victory is symbolic to much wider number of workers, for whom the gig economy conjures up the general sense of instability and insecurity which now characterises so much work in Britain. As in the case of zero hours contracts, it is not that the majority of workers suffer from these conditions, but that there is an overall fear that this is the future of work, and that the younger generations will suffer even more from them. In addition, the methods of the gig economy encroach into more ‘standard’ employment.
Just as the film I Daniel Blake has crystallised feelings about the injustice of the benefits system, this ruling can help to build opposition to the gig economy and to the methods employers are using to avoid paying what is due. It is particularly important that we don’t fall for the arguments about freedom and choice with which the employers like Uber justify their treatment of workers. London cab drivers – and many others across the world – have pointed to the dangers of deregulation in this area, and have attempted to force regulation on Uber cabs. So far they have been fighting a losing battle, but this is another means of coming at the question.
The test for the whole labour movement is how new jobs can be organised properly and achieve decent conditions. The decision today is an important step towards that.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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