Uber operates an agency business similar to those operated by traditional minicab firms, a lawyer representing the company aimed to convince a judge at an employment tribunal in London on Wednesday.
The taxi app company is appealing against a ruling that its drivers should be treated as workers — entitled to a range of benefits — as opposed to self-employed contractors.
Dinah Rose, Uber’s Queen’s Counsel and a former Barrister of the Year, said: “Uber London works in a way that is no different from the way many different minicab firms operate.
“The minicab company accepts the booking on behalf of the driver but the contract is between the driver and the passenger.”
Former Uber drivers James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam took Uber to court last October over their employment status and won. They specifically argued that they should be classed as workers, who are entitled to paid annual leave, minimum wage, and breaks.
Uber hasn’t made any changes to the way it classifies its drivers and now it’s appealing the October court ruling at a two-day employment tribunal, being held just off Fleet Street in Fleet Bank House.
Rose said: “We say that on a proper analysis the claimants in this case don’t work under any contract for Uber London at all.”
The Californian transport company has always maintained that drivers who use its platform are independent contractors. It frames itself as a technology platform, connecting riders and drivers and taking a fee in the process.
The tribunal comes a week after transport regulator Transport for London (TfL) announced that it would not be renewing Uber’s operating licence at the end of the month. TfL’s decision is “not relevant for this appeal,” Rose said.
Referencing the number of journalists in the court on Wednesday, Rose said: “If this tribunal feels a little crowded today, it’s for good reason. There are two elephants in this room — the first is the decision made by Transport for London last week. Uber has made a public statement in that decision. It’s not relevant to this appeal and I don’t propose to address it any further today.”
She added: “Second, is the national debate of the so-called gig economy and the tendency in that debate to lump Uber together with a variety of other platforms and businesses, including those which operate in a different way to Uber.
“The task of this tribunal is not to participate in that debate. This tribunal’s task is to apply well-established principles of law to the particular facts of this case and determine if the judge reached a decision which no reasonable tribunal should have made. The function of this tribunal has a public importance which goes beyond the task of the individual parties that appear before us.”
Speaking at a protest held at the court before the hearing, Aslam said: “In the case of Uber, drivers are stuck into working due to desperation, either by costly finance, insurance, licence fees, and the list goes on… People talk about slave labour and exploitation in third world countries, but hey, we have sweated labour and workers being exploited on the street of London.
“In the case of Uber, drivers are stuck into working due to desperation, either by costly finance, insurance, licence fees, and the list goes on… People talk about slave labour and exploitation in third world countries, but hey, we have sweated labour and workers being exploited on the street of London.
“All Uber want to do is flood the market with drivers, with no responsibility nor liability — keep reducing fares to attract more customers, while drivers carry all the risks.
“These drivers are hard-working people and in their job face many struggles. Drivers sleeping in their cars, drivers working 80/90 hours a week and still not making the minimum wage. Not seeing their family, the stress and pressure of the job — these very same drivers have been pushed into hardship by Uber.”
A poll conducted by polling firm ORB and touted by Uber on Tuesday found that 80% of Uber drivers would rather be an independent contractor than a worker or employee.
“When asked whether they’d prefer to remain self-employed or become a worker or employee of Uber, the overwhelming majority want to continue being their own boss,” said ORB International managing director Johnny Heald in a statement.
Uber is not “exploitative, or disreputable”
Rose argued that Uber is no different from a minicab agency that connects 100 or so drivers looking for a job with passengers looking for a lift. The only difference is Uber’s app allows that same model to be significantly scaled up, she said.
“If the service is designed to be attractive to drivers and passengers you end up where Uber is: 40,000 drivers and 3.5 million passengers,” said Rose.
“This means a private hire vehicle can pick you up in minutes. Gone are the days of waiting. It is a model that is disruptive of traditional business, such as black cabs. This is the reason why it is politically controversial. But it has nothing to do with anything new, exploitative, or disreputable between that private hire company and the drivers. Only Uber’s effect of tech and scale. It’s that scale which caused the judge to baulk. We say that is irrelevant. “
It’s unclear if the judge will pass a decision at the end of the tribunal, which concludes tomorrow.