Uber drivers in the UK have been guaranteed the minimum wage, holiday pay and pensions. Rather than an act of munificence by the company, this was an inevitability. In February the Supreme Court ruled that the drivers are entitled to be treated as “workers” rather than just independent contractors – a business model of cheap labour used by apps such as Uber and other companies that pay “per gig”.
Uber at first argued that the court decision only applied to the handful of drivers bringing the action, and indeed told its UK drivers so. Yet when claims for back-pay piled up – within a week of the Supreme Court ruling in February, nearly a quarter of all UK Uber drivers had filed claims, as the New Statesman revealed – it could no longer ignore that all 70,000 of its drivers deserved proper workers’ rights.
Yet all is not yet settled. Uber has not agreed to pay drivers for their time between jobs. This is in spite of the Supreme Court’s position that time spent working for Uber was not limited to just driving passengers to their destinations. It ruled that any period when the driver is logged into the Uber app and is positioned and willing to accept trips counts as work.
Of course, any Uber user will know one of the key appeals of the app is that there is always a driver nearby to pick you up – reducing the wait to a few minutes. It is a convenient feature made possible by the sheer amount of unpaid time drivers are prepared to put in.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Frances O’Grady has called it “the 21st century equivalent of workers being held at the factory gate, bidding for work”, arguing that “it’s not acceptable in a modern economy”.
If even Uber drivers, whose court victory was a resounding rebuke to modern gig-work practices, are not yet fully protected after a five-year legal battle, questions remain for the millions of other precarious workers. Nearly five million people work in Britain’s gig economy, which doubled in size over three years, according to 2019 figures from the TUC.
The Uber changes are likely to have implications for similar large brands that have the same cultural cachet. They will receive the most press attention, and Uber itself will push for its competitors to grant the same benefits to drivers. As one Uber source told me last month, the company wants “a level-playing field across the ride-hailing sector”.
Yet the majority of those people whose rights are circumvented by agencies and zero-hours contracts work in anonymous industries with little public voice – cleaners, carers and security guards, for example. Until primary legislation is introduced to clarify employment status, the lives of millions of workers will be at the mercy of a world of work evolving fast to disregard them.