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Uber ruling : now is the time to fight for gig workers’ rights

“When workers cannot negotiate their own contracts, hourly rates, or have any other recourse to set parameters of the job, they are not independent or free but are being exploited by companies who steal their labour in pursuit of profit.”

By Amy Smith, Halifax CLP.

In February 2021 the UK Supreme Court delivered a landmark victory for workers against Uber, with far-reaching implications for the exploitative gig economy. In a case brought by former drivers and the GMB union, the court ruled that drivers must be treated as workers and not as self-employed. This decision entitles Uber drivers to basic workers’ rights including minimum wage and holiday pay, and establishes a precedent in the fight for rights for the estimated 4.7 million people who work in the UK’s gig economy.

The ruling came after a four year battle through the UK court system, which first saw former Uber drivers James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam win an employment tribunal in 2016. Uber appealed against this decision three times. The determination to keep their drivers classed as self-employed demonstrates how far companies will go to maximise their own profit through exploitation of workers. This was noted by the judge who said in the ruling that Uber contracts ‘can be seen to have as their object precluding a driver from claiming rights conferred on workers by the applicable legislation’.

Uber couched its narrative about drivers in the language of independence, whilst circumventing any real commitment to workers’ rights. In reality, gig economy workers in casualised and insecure jobs lack the real independence that comes from a stable and well-paid job, with secure rights and legal protections.

Uber’s subsequent announcement that all drivers will receive holiday pay and the minimum wage, and be enrolled into a pension plan, is welcome. Yet, Uber has not gone far enough to treat its workers fairly. Although the ‘self-employed’ label has been dropped, Uber drivers are now classed only as ‘workers’ and not ‘employees’. This distinction is crucial, as under UK law only ‘employees’ enjoy full employment rights, including the right to claim redundancy and unfair dismissal.

Uber has continued to cut corners on rights, telling drivers that the minimum wage will only apply for the duration of a trip and not for the total period of time when a driver is logged on. This is a paltry offering which ties pay closely to ‘productivity’ without considering the unseen labour of the gig economy. It is unsurprising that Uber drivers remain sceptical about any positive impact that may come from the ruling.

Nevertheless, this is an important step forward. GMB notes that it has serious implications for the rights of people working in the gig economy more broadly, setting an important precedent. Legal ambiguity over the standing of gig economy workers – and the category that they belong to – has been eliminated.  The door is open for legal challenges to other companies who use ‘self-employed’ as a justification for precarity and unfair pay.

Defending the ‘self-employed’ label is no longer a feasible narrative for companies. When workers cannot negotiate their own contracts, hourly rates, or have any other recourse to set parameters of the job, they are not independent or free but are being exploited by companies who steal their labour in pursuit of profit. Unions and workers should now look to make use of this landmark ruling to challenge the exploitative practices that drive down wages and intensify precarity.

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