The five-year legal fight that could change Uber and the gig economy
For the drivers battling Silicon Valley giant Uber, it has been a brutal, five-year struggle. A landmark legal fight, which started as a sick pay and holiday dispute in an employment tribunal, entered its final throes in the Supreme Court yesterday.
Drivers are arguing that they are “workers” entitled to the minimum wage, paid leave and other legal protections. Uber says that they are “independent third party contractors”.
“We have been fighting this case for five years,” says Yaseen Aslam, who drove for Uber and is one of the claimants, “what we are seeing here is workers being denied their rights.”
James Farrar, another claimant, warned that if they failed, drivers and other gig economy workers would be at risk of “a serious and rapid deterioration in working terms”.
Paul Jennings, a lawyer for Bates Wells, which is representing Aslam and Farrar, says: “It is not an overstatement that it has huge implications for the gig economy as it is the first one that has gone to the Supreme Court.”
The dispute with Uber dates back to a late-night row with disruptive passengers in 2015, according to an account Farrar gave Wired. Farrar contacted the police after a group of drunken passengers verbally abused him. At the time, Farrar says Uber didn’t fulfil its duty of care, and failed to co-operate with the police because it considered him to be self-employed.
Uber argues it does not have an employer relationship with drivers, rather it acts as an agency, like a gigantic minicab firm. Drivers, according to its licensing agreements, use its app to pick up passengers, while Uber takes a cut of the fees that generates. They can choose when they work and can log off when they like, Uber claims, and they have no obligation to drive.
Dinah Rose, Uber’s QC, told the Justices there was “nothing inconsistent... whereby drivers contract directly with passengers” in Uber’s user agreement.
“In the context of the private hire industry there are many examples of exactly this character that have been upheld as genuine.”
But the employment tribunal previously found that drivers were in fact workers. Among other findings, the tribunal ruled that Uber’s power to remove drivers from its app if they rejected too many trips obliged them to do work. It further argued Uber’s driver agreements resorted to “fictions, twisted language and even brand new terminology”. Lawyers for the claimants allege the contracts were a “sham” and an “attempt to disguise an employment contract”. The latest appeal is coming up against a difficult legal precedent. Top UK judges ruled in 2018 that London-based Pimlico Plumbers should have treated one of its tradesmen as a “worker,” giving him the right to holiday pay and to sue the company.
That same year, taxi service Addison Lee lost an appeal over whether drivers were independent contractors or employees with rights to benefits.
If the drivers in Uber’s case are found to be workers, they could be entitled to £12,000 on average, says one of the law firms involved.
But the implications could be wider still. Tens of thousands of other Uber drivers may consider whether they have a claim for lost pay. It could also change how Uber charges for rides. In some cities in the US, Uber has increased fees in places where drivers are no longer treated as freelancers. It could also inspire more of the 5.5m people in the UK employed in the so-called gig-economy to inspect their own working agreements, or lack of them, and ask if they are owed something. This would be a major fight back against what Aslam called the “Uberisation” of many jobs in Britain’s economy. He wants new rules, either from Parliament or from Transport for London, the regulator, to protect the rights of drivers.
“Why has it fallen on us to fight such a lengthy battle? The point is precarious workers do not have the resources to fight a company such as Uber. Just because people are desperate, does not mean that this is OK,” he says. The case continues today. A judgment is not expected for more than a month.