On 19 February, the Supreme Court finally instructed Uber to recognise its responsibilities and treat its drivers as workers. No longer should this multi billion-pound company be able to ignore the fundamental rights of their drivers, such as sick pay, holiday and the right to be paid a minimum wage. The case marked the start of what should be a brighter, more stable future for Uber drivers and, at long last, turns the tide against a gig economy that too often profits from rolling back hard-won rights.
I am so pleased that the hard work of two former Uber drivers, James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, to defend their rights has paid off. They first brought their case to an employment tribunal in 2016 and their determination to defend their rights through the courts has been inspiring to watch.
As a Green member of the London Assembly, I have supported Uber drivers throughout the legal process. In 2017 I got the Assembly to agree to a motion asking the Mayor to lobby the government for powers to make workers’ rights a condition of all future private hire operator licenses.
It was part of a battle that has been going on far too long. The government should have intervened years ago. As Westminster dragged its heels, Uber’s illegal business model flooded the market with cheap rides, disrupting existing taxi and private hire businesses.
They provided no safety net for their workers, while profiting from the poverty, pollution and congestion that followed their entry into and disruption of London’s taxi and private hire trade.
Uber has claimed that it wasn’t in control of earnings, but this was just a sleight of hand. The company set the fares, fees and contract terms that drivers had to stick to. At the same time, the company had the ability to punish drivers who didn’t accept fares and could terminate their service. Ultimately their business model allowed them to shirk their responsibilities whilst also giving them profitable control over drivers. This has been particularly devastating during the pandemic, with drivers – many in debt with car purchase agreements – facing massively reduced customer numbers at the same time as being left out from business support and furlough schemes.
Uber also had a cynical advantage over other minicab firms and taxi drivers. By claiming to be a technology firm, not a minicab company, it dodged millions every year in VAT. This has denied the government much-needed funds while threatening the livelihoods of drivers in properly run firms.
There have been huge implications for our city in terms of congestion, road danger and air pollution. Uber could afford to flood the private hire market with drivers, clogging up roads with traffic and pollution, with sat nav in the Uber app directing drivers down once quiet residential roads. Drivers meanwhile faced working longer and longer hours, driving while tired to service the loans on their cars, and pay their bills.
The verdict gives drivers the fundamental worker rights they deserve. The government should now act to reinforce the rights workers have won with suitable legislation. As it stands, there is a risk that every Uber driver has to bring their own case forward just to have their basic rights recognized.
What we need to do is to make it fairer. In order to stop any company exploiting its position again, workers’ rights should be a condition of licensing. Again, this was part of my motion on Uber that the London Assembly passed in 2017.
App-based taxi and minicab hire won’t go away, the technology now exists and most of us have smartphones. Transport for London, as the integrated transport authority for the city, should use data on taxi and private hire to protect public purpose. I met in 2019 with Meera Joshi, the former chair of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission to learn how that city uses data (with appropriate privacy protection) to enable regulation that balances the needs of drivers, passengers and other people in the city.
The Mayor of London should now not only use Uber’s London license to require them to follow the court ruling and treat drivers as workers, but also work on new models for regulating private hire using data. This would enable Transport for London to manage the taxis and minicabs on our streets and keep the big companies like Uber honest. The data could also track how long drivers are logged in, and how the average amount of fares they receive in any given hour compares with the minimum wage.
HMRC needs to collect the unpaid VAT Uber owes as a matter of principle and practicality. That money could go into Transport for London’s budget, which has been so badly affected by the pandemic. The company also needs to compensate its drivers for the years that they have been working under unfair and unlawful conditions.
The Supreme Court’s decision provides an opportunity to rebalance the taxi and private hire market for the good of our city, these working drivers and their customers.
*By Caroline Russell, Green World*