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Uber drivers at protest against precarious labour

Uber drivers protesting against precarious labour. Photo: War on Want / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The victory against Uber in court offers precarious workers an opportunity to organise and bring an end to the gig economy, reports Yonas Makoni

The jig is finally up for Uber, who after five years in court have lost their final appeal to the Supreme Court, forcing them to recognise their drivers as workers rather than self-employed. In a landmark ruling last Friday, the six judges on the Supreme Court unanimously decided that Uber’s claim that its drivers are independent contractors did not hold water due to the “subordinate and dependent” position of the drivers in relation to the company.

This verdict was the result of four years of legal battle on the part of plaintiffs James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) and 23 other Uber drivers, with legal and financial support from unions GMB and IWGB. Its implications are potentially massive and many publications are already predicting that this could spell the end of the gig economy. 

As workers, Uber drivers would be entitled to a minimum wage, annual leave and sick pay. Furthermore, the judges ruled that drivers were no longer to be paid per fare, but were to be classed as working whenever they were logged on to the app and “ready and willing” to accept passengers. Not only would this radically change Uber’s business model, the case could also be used as a precedent by other gig economy workers, such as Deliveroo couriers, who face similar conditions.

On the other hand, Uber themselves are trying to downplay the ruling, arguing that it only applies to the workers who brought the case originally in 2016 and that improvements to their business model since then have made it irrelevant to current drivers.

These arguments are plainly wrong, however. The judgement relied on factors that are central to Uber’s current business model - that Uber sets the fare rather than the driver, imposes a contract on whose terms the driver has no say and penalises drivers whose ratings are deemed to be too low.

As labour law expert Alan Bogg told Politico, "it's very difficult to imagine how Uber could reinvent itself to avoid [the effects of the judgment]”, given that the company’s business model is based on “high levels of control and subordination of individual drivers who don't have any effective entrepreneurial freedom”.

The company is right, however, that the judgement only applies automatically to the plaintiffs in the case, rather than to Uber drivers in general. While it sets a precedent, other gig economy workers from Uber or elsewhere will themselves have to bring cases and show how the judgement applies to them. This, of course, brings costs and difficulties in itself.

This clearly exposes Uber’s motivation for misrepresenting the verdict - to prevent other workers from coming forward and exercising their rights. This move should surprise no one, given money the company has spent trying to weasel out of following the law during the past four years of appeals.

While Uber is clearly fighting an uphill battle at this stage, the weak enforcement of British labour laws gives the company a potential way out. As pointed out by the FT, it took a four-year court battle to come to a decision which may not be widely enforced in the short-term, given the legal hoops workers will have to jump through. Unless the workers and unions proactively push for enforcement, little action can be expected from the state.

All this shows that victory will not come automatically and that the workers will have to keep on the offensive for some time to come. Now is the time for a mass union recruitment campaign to allow the maximum number of drivers to have their voices heard and force Uber and their ilk to change their ways. The workers and unions who delivered this victory are already taking steps to help workers seeking compensation and to gain union recognition for drivers so that they can dispute the terms of their employment collectively. We must support these efforts as much as possible and push for the unions to step up the fight. If these efforts are continued, Uber BV v Aslam could well be the first step in the fight that takes down the gig economy for good.

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