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Commentary: Uber’s UK U-turn - the exploitative gig economy employment model is not dead but it may be at an inflection point

"Uber’s UK U-turn: the exploitative gig economy employment model is not dead but it may be at an inflection point", 1 April 2021

Under normal circumstances, any company making a bombastic declaration that it will partially respect a court decision would be met with a chorus of derision. Yet, Uber’s announcement on 16 March 2021 that it would treat its drivers in the United Kingdom as ‘workers’, albeit with caveats, was greeted with a mixture of incredulity, hope, and disdain. This is because for over a decade, Uber – the epitome of Silicon Valley exceptionalism – has deployed its PR lobbying machine to protect its exploitative business model based on employment status misclassification. The company’s sudden U-turn in the UK represents a significant shift in position, marking a possible inflection point for the gig economy. Does this spell the end of Uber’s predatory employment model and make it a good corporate citizen? Absolutely not, but context is everything.

Earlier this year, the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a group of Uber drivers were workers rather than self-employed contractors. In doing so, the Supreme Court dismissed Uber’s appeal against the decisions of the lower courts, thereby ending a five-year legal battle. Worker status under English law is a form of self-employment, but one that guarantees basic rights like the minimum wage, holiday pay, and protection against discrimination. Crucially, this intermediate employment category also unlocks fundamental trade union rights...

...The Supreme Court had ruled that a driver should be paid for the entire time they are logged into the Uber app and available for bookings. However, Uber will only pay drivers once they have accepted a trip, leaving some shortchanged to the tune of 40 to 50 per cent...

...While Uber has spent years trying to avoid responsibility for these fundamental rights, their sudden U-turn in the UK has implications beyond the British Isles...

...In France, after the Supreme Court ruled that an Uber driver was an employee in 2020, Uber did nothing to change its employment practices. When the Geneva Cantonal Court held that UberEats was a hiring agency and had to employ its riders, Uber set up a third-party company to hire the riders, thereby outsourcing its employment obligations. There is a long list of similar examples from other jurisdictions where Uber has ignored regulations and court decisions.

In this context, Uber’s move in the UK is undeniably significant even though it continues to flout the law by failing to pay drivers in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling. Uber’s definition of working time will plague global policy debates in months and years to come. No company should be allowed to pick and choose which parts of the law they apply. Further, Uber has been suspiciously silent on voluntary trade union recognition. The fact that they have unilaterally developed a minimum wage calculation formula proves why good faith bargaining is essential to give workers a voice on terms and conditions...

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