LONDON — Uber is battling for its future in London.
In October 2016, an employment tribunal ruled the Californian transport company’s drivers are workers, not self-employed contractors — and eligible for benefits like the minimum wage, sick pay, rest breaks, and holiday break.
Uber strongly disputes the ruling, and is preparing to appeal. It insists that it is simply a technology platform — one that connects self-employed drivers and riders looking for a cab.
The tribunal rejected this argument — asserting that this model, which Uber employs worldwide, is a cynical ploy to deprive riders of their rights.
It’s a case that has split the private hire driver community. Many support the ruling, and GMB, a British union that helped bring the case, told Business Insider that “hundreds” of drivers have got in touch looking to join the legal action.
But other drivers disagree — arguing that the model suits them, and that being classified as a worker or employee could restrict their freedoms.
I spoke to two drivers with opposing views to hear what they had to say about the case. I was introduced to Ben, who is pro-Uber, by the company, while the GMB put me in touch with Asif, who is one of those calling for change.
‘If you don’t like it you should go elsewhere’
Ben, a 25-year-old London driver, said he’d rather things stayed as they are. “You don’t want a contract mate, I’d rather be self-employed,” he told me.
“I don’t see why I’d want to be employed. Restricting the things I could do, restricting the hours I could work, restricting my pay, restricting the holiday I could take … the whole point of me doing this job is to have flexibility.”
He has driven in the capital for Uber for a year and a half, signing on with the company after doing “The Knowledge” — a test that traditional black cab drivers do to learn London’s streets. His hours vary between 40 and 50 hours a week, working nights: “Depends on my schedule.”
He thinks those with concerns, or who do want benefits, should simply go elsewhere. “What I don’t understand is why anyone would sign up for a company where they know full well that they’re getting into, and then complain about it … if you don’t like it then go elsewhere.”
He added: “It’s not like you signed up and you was employed, then they changed it to self-employed … that’s not happened. It’s always been the same way, so you knew exactly what you was getting into.”
‘Freedom does not mean we abuse’
Asif, 45, takes a very different view.
He claims drivers have been “lied to” about their self-employment: “This self-employment is … a loophole. How can I be self-employed? As long as I’m not opening that app. The minute I open that app, I am directed and dictated by the company — giving me the job, controlling the fare, controlling even which way to go.”
So what does he make of the argument that some drivers, like Ben, want the freedom of self-employment? “Freedom does not mean we abuse … and we do not adhere the law.” Many drivers, he argued, simply do not fully know their rights, and that not enough effort is made “to help people understand the workplace law.”
Asif is in his second year driving for Uber, and his seventh as a professional driver. He typically does around 30 hours a week.
And he attacked TfL, London’s transport regulator, for alleged failings in regulating Uber’s behaviour. “You have given them an operator licence, but they are making their own rules … safety, security, fare.”
He also expressed broader concerns about Uber’s behaviour and tax affairs: “A foreign company comes over, making money, shifting profits overseas, and does not respect the law of the land.”
But his core argument is similar to the tribunal’s ruling: Many drivers are effectively employees, with restrictions placed on them as if they were, and as such should be entitled to the same benefits.
Uber says its drivers are happy self-employed
The employment tribunal was scathing in its ruling, criticising what it characterised as “twisted language” from Uber.
“The supposed driver/passenger contract is a pure fiction which bears no relation to the real dealings and relationships between the parties,” the ruling said. “It is not real to regard Uber as working ‘for’ the drivers … the only sensible interpretation is that the relationship is the other way around.”
Uber counters that its drivers prefer to be self-employed by a margin of five-to-one, according to a poll from OBR International, and the vast majority are happy driving with the company.
If the company’s appeal is ultimately unsuccessful, it will be a major blow for the company. It will be on the hook for millions in benefits, national insurance contributions, and other costs — and it will also be a direct challenge to the heart of its business model.
“Tens of thousands of people in London drive with Uber precisely because they want to be self-employed and their own boss,” UK boss Jo Bertram said in a statement after the ruling. “The overwhelming majority of drivers who use the Uber app want to keep the freedom and flexibility of being able to drive when and where they want. While the decision of this preliminary hearing only affects two people we will be appealing it.”