The ride-hailing app “Uber” is currently in the Supreme Court in a last-chance attempt to overturn the decision of the Court of Appeal that their drivers are “workers” rather than “third-party independent contractors”. As technology allows completely new ways of businesses offering their services, the Supreme Court is sitting on a landmark case in the history of workers’ rights. Richard Thomas and Tom Jones examine the case and its implications.
The case is brought by ride-hailing app company Uber, a well-known service that requires its customers to use the company’s app to connect them with drivers who will act as a taxi. Uber represented a leap forward in the development of the taxi business, and it is most prominent in London, and has some 45,000 individuals providing their services to customers via the company.
Uber says that its drivers are independent third-party self-employed contractors and that it only provides the app to connect the customer to the driver. The drivers disagree and say that they are “workers” for Uber. If the drivers are correct, then they will be able to claim normal worker entitlements such as minimum wage, paid leave, and other provisions, rather than receiving none of those as third-party contractors.
The case represents a landmark moment in how “workers” in the gig economy are defined in the modern and increasingly technology-influenced workplace.
The Employment Tribunal found that the drivers were “workers” and “working” whilst the app was switched on, they were in the territory in which they were authorised to work, and they were able and willing to accept assignments. The Court of Appeal upheld the Tribunal’s decision, and the case is now before the Supreme Court for two days.
Around 5 million people in the UK are employed in the so-called “gig economy”, an economy based on short-term contracts or freelance work, rather than the more rigid and inflexible employment sector. The gig economy praised for its flexibility, but also criticised for its inherent job-insecurity, lack of protections for the workforce, and the ability to be exploited by large companies. The Uber system of acting with self-employed third-party contractors has spread to a number of other large and small service providers, and many companies will be watching this case and reading the judgment with considerable interest.
Drivers (and others who have work in the gig economy) receive so little protection compared with full or part time employment, in part because so far no-one credible has defined what a “worker” is within the industry and whether the definition from the more conventional employment sector can be stretched to apply to those in the gig-economy.
Should Uber lose, the judgment might pave the way for thousands of UK workers who are not currently paid minimum wage or offered such protections as annual or sickness absence to claim this from the company, and a host of other (often quite new) companies operating on the gig economy system.
We are also seeing similar cases all over the world, the Canadian Supreme Court recently dismissed an Uber appeal, and allowed for drivers to claim employment benefits. Likewise, in the USA, next month a judge will decide a similar question in California. California’s state senate agreed last September that Uber drivers were not self-employed, and in March France became another country to define Uber drivers as employees, rather than self-employed.
It’s often the case that questions and issues in the Supreme Court will have marked effects on the people they are concerned with, but this case is particularly exciting, and we look forward to reviewing the Judgment when it is received.
With eyes ahead to the future, the number of gig economy individuals entering this more flexible but ill-defined workplace will only increase as the impacts of Coronavirus forces more and more people out of work.
If you work in the gig economy or are a company that uses gig economy workers and wish to discuss the significance and implications on this case on you, please do not hesitate to get in touch.