In a case brought by taxi drivers including Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar of the App Drivers and Couriers Union, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that drivers working for Uber are not independent contractors, but workers. Specifically, they are “dependent contractors” or “limb b) workers”.
This judgement means that Uber owes its workers sick pay, holiday pay and the national minimum wage going back to the start of their employment with Uber. Law firm Leigh Day, which is representing thousands of couriers making a joint claim for this money, estimates that Uber may owe something like £12,000 per worker. Limb b) worker status also implies more protection against discrimination, and therefore Uber may face additional litigation over discriminatory practices in future.
The Financial Times summarises the court’s central arguments: “Uber set maximum fares, drivers had no say in their contracts and the application imposed penalties if drivers cancelled too many requests”. This level of control meant drivers could not increase their income using “professional or entrepreneurial skill”, the court concluded, meaning they worked for Uber and not themselves.”
Limb b) worker status also opens the door to union recognition, which the IWGB union is now pushing for.
Uber is attempting to wriggle out of the court judgement. Jamie Heywood, Uber general manager for northern and eastern Europe, issued a statement to drivers saying: “a small number of drivers from 2016 can be classified as workers, but this judgment does not apply to drivers who earn on the app today.” But unless Uber has reduced its degree of control over its workers since 2016, this is bulllshit.
Keeping open loopholes in employment law is a vital interest to Uber. In 2020, after a California court made a similar ruling to this 2021 UK Supreme Court decision, Uber, along with gig economy firms Lyft, DoorDash, and Postmates, spent more than US$200 million on a referendum to pass “Proposition 22”, which classified app workers as independent contractors, nullifying the court decision.
It is worth asking why Uber has only been hit with this judgement now, after many years of operations. This long failure to enforce the law on the tech giant may well have been the fruit of long-running lobbying efforts. UberEats and other app-based firms will now be scrambling to use fair means and foul to stay one step ahead of employment law and avoid racking up similar liabilities. Stuart, which performs delivery services for JustEat, lost an appeal in a similar case regarding the status of one of its couriers in 2019.
Uber’s market value is US$100 billion. The firm’s vast wealth should be spent on drivers and on subsidising fares for customers. Like many app companies, Uber provides a service which is genuinely useful. It should be publicly owned and run democratically, for social need, not private profit.