Yaseen Aslam has single-handedly taken on the ride-hailing giant, which now might have to give employee rights to the drivers in the near future.
Uber is facing its biggest legal challenge since the ride-hailing giant started operations a decade ago and upended the way people used taxis.
In a few weeks, the UK Supreme Court will rule on a case that pits Uber against its drivers who say they deserve the minimum wage, paid sick leave and the right to form a union.
Experts say the results of the case could have a far reaching impact on the gig economy where tech firms have devised ways to connect workers directly with customers, sidestepping traditional contractual responsibilities.
The man behind the case is thirty-nine-year old Yaseen Aslam, a British citizen, whose parents migrated from Pakistan’s Mirpur region in the 1970s.
“I’m an average guy...yeah. You wouldn’t even talk to me if it wasn’t for Uber. I’m lucky to have the support of drivers, ethnic minorities and solicitors. I wouldn’t have gone on fighting like this if I knew this legal case will go on for six years,” he tells TRT World.
Aslam is the president of App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU), which represents people working for companies such as Uber and Ola.
In late October, ADCU pleaded before a court in the Netherlands, where Uber has its international headquarters, that the company be made to share information of some drivers who have been arbitrarily blocked out of the app.
Why take the beating?
Aslam, a private-hire driver, began using the Uber app in 2013, a year after it made its entry into the UK market amid protests from the owners of the iconic black Hackneys.
“I was making good money back then. Uber had launched its UberX service and it would give you a 10 pound bonus for every job. So that was like 100 pounds for me,” he says.
But he noticed that some Uber drivers were getting assaulted especially after they had picked up drunk customers from drinking locales. “Uber wouldn’t share customer details and there was no way for the police to take action. So I was like telling the drivers that ‘look it’s not your job to get assaulted’,” he says.
Aslam’s activism started from a WhatsApp group where some of the drivers shared details about traffic jams and best spots to pick up rides.
As Uber expanded, it began to reduce the fares and cut bonuses. “So we organised some meetings at different venues and distributed pamphlets. Uber people would show up at these meetings, mostly to intimidate us,” he says.
Uber was willing to discuss issues with drivers on a one-on-one basis but not as a group. The company founded by American entrepreneur Travis Kalanick has always maintained that its drivers are self-employed contractors who have freedom to work whenever they want.
This means the drivers can not be treated as regular company employees who have the right to minimum wage, a trade union or paid leave.
But Aslam and other drivers say the company maintains control over them like they are its employees by deciding how much they earn, as well as penalising them for deliberately cancelling rides.
After Aslam was blocked out of the Uber app in 2015 -presumably for his activism - he, along with a fellow driver, James Farrar, took the matter to authorities.
“We wanted to know what was our status? Were we working for Uber or not?”
That was probably the first time anyone took legal recourse on the question of employment status since the boom in smartphones launched a host of global IT firms that conduct business on the internet.
Since then, Aslam and his co-claimants have won the case before the UK's labour tribunal and the High Court, the second highest in the country. In both instances, judges have ruled that Uber drivers are very much company workers.
The case went before the Supreme Court in July on Uber’s appeal and now a final decision is pending.
For Aslam the judgement in favour of drivers will go a long way in shaping how private contractors are treated around the world.
“What I couldn’t get my head around was the fact that a company like Uber, which is worth billions, shouldn’t be growing on the backs of workers who are being exploited,” he says.
While Uber, which has market capitalisation of $60 billion, claims that its drivers earn £11 ($14) per hour, independent studies have found that actual income is much below the minimum wage of £8.2.
After paying for fuel, taxes and wear and tear expenses, the drivers actually earn around £5 an hour, according to a Nottingham Trent University research.
Besides fighting for the rights of drivers, the legal battle is close to Aslam’s heart for another reason. Most of the drivers working for companies such as Uber belong to the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community.
Around 96 percent of the 110,000 Uber drivers in London belong to the BAME community, says Aslam. On the other hand, the ratio of white people driving Hackney cabs is 84 percent.
“Five separate organisations representing the taxis (Hackneys) are on the Transport for London board. But there’s no separate organisation representing the private hires . That’s one of the things we are striving for,” he says.
“So there’s a massive element of discrimination by the regulators such as the TFL,” the department responsible for issuing licenses to all the drivers in the city.
Aslam strongly feels that both Uber and authorities have turned a “blind eye” to the issues private-hire drivers face because most of them belong to migrant communities.
“In a way, people in the society accept that it's okay for refugees and BME workers to be treated like slaves.”
If Aslam loses the Supreme Court case, he would have to disband the ADCU as only company-employed workers can form a union in the UK. For him, having a unionised voice is important having seen how his own migrant father who worked at a factory was protected by a union.
This is where he also becomes critical of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, who has often spoken about how his father was a bus driver.
“As someone who comes from a working class background what has he done for people like myself?”