The Pakistan-origin driver behind the Uber case in the UK says the ride-hailing giant has no option but to comply with the law.
Uber is dragging its feet on the implementation of a landmark judgement of the UK's highest court, which last month ruled that the ride-hailing giant’s drivers are entitled to minimum wage, paid leave and other benefits.
A six-judge bench of the UK Supreme Court said Uber cannot sidestep contractual responsibility by saying it's just an app that helps connect a driver with a passenger.
The judgement can have a far-reaching impact on the gig economy, which thrives on using workers as independent contractors with far less rights compared to employees on a regular company’s payroll.
“Now Uber is making it sound like the judgement concerns only 25 people,” said Yaseen Aslam, the 39-year-old cab driver, who first brought a legal challenge in 2015.
Uber argues the judgement doesn’t reclassify all its UK drivers as workers and it was related to the few who used the app in 2016.
The case had previously weaved through three lower courts, which had all ruled in favour of the drivers. But since the matter was pending before the Supreme Court the lower tribunal courts were not admitting similar lawsuits of hundreds of other drivers.
Ultimately, Aslam and two dozen other drivers reached the highest court.
A bumpy road ahead
Aslam, whose parents migrated to the UK from Pakistan in the 1970s, said Uber must start a dialogue with the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU), a organisation he leads with James Farrar.
The court has ruled that Uber drivers are workers but not employees. Being categorised as a worker will allow an Uber driver to have a minimum wage, paid leave and the right to form a union.
Although it does not give them the benefit of sick pay or pension, Aslam said it was still a big victory for the drivers, many of whom belong to vulnerable ethnic minorities who are treated unfairly.
Lawyers estimate that each Uber driver is entitled to $21,000 (£12,000) in backdated compensation for paid leaves and minimum wage.
Uber did not respond to questions from TRT World on whether it was looking to reach a settlement with all of its 100,000 drivers in the UK.
Aslam insisted that the Supreme Court judgement applies to not just Uber drivers but workers in other gig companies.
“We would want Uber to sit with the union (ADCU) and discuss how the workers can be heard,” he said.
No green lights
Uber has all along maintained that most of its 3.9 million drivers around the world prefer the flexibility in working hours over employment benefits.
But Aslam said that’s incorrect since many of the drivers use the Uber app as their only source of income.
“This flexibility means nothing. Most of us use it as a full-time employment. It’s especially tough during the pandemic when you have to drive for hours to make up for the expenses such as fuel before making any profit.”
Independent studies such as this one by the University of California professor Chris Benner show that the time drivers spend on the road already qualifies them to be treated as full-time company employees.
"This is not a 'gig.' This is full-time work for the majority of these workers. More than one-third are supporting children and nearly half are supporting other adults,” he said.
Uber has invested tens of millions of dollars in lobbying to counter a UK-like challenge in the US.
Late last year, Uber and other gig companies such as Lyft won a vote in California, which was looking to classify their workers as employees.
The companies together spent a record $200 million to lobby voters and hired more than a dozen PR firms and consultants.
But the UK Supreme Court judgement has raised a new challenge for the ride-hailing giant as transport unions elsewhere are already looking to mount legal cases now that they have a precedent.
“Uber, with its army of lawyers, wasn’t expecting that a ragtag group like ours will continue to fight the legal battle. It must now pay up as per the law,” said Aslam.
In an official response, Uber said the UK Supreme Court judgement "focused on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016."
"The judgment does not reclassify all UK drivers as workers and it assesses the Uber app as it was in 2016. This judgment does not apply to drivers in the UK who earn on the app today".
"Over the last few years we have made significant changes to our business and have been guided by drivers every step of the way. For example, drivers now have full transparency over the price and destination of their trip, and since 2017 there has been no repercussion for rejecting multiple consecutive trips."
Note: The story has been updated with Uber's response, which was received after the story was published.