Uber drivers are not self-employed contractors, but staff entitled to basic workers’ rights: that was the unanimous judgment of the UK Supreme Court on 19 February.

As a court of last resort, its decision ends Uber’s bid to overturn lower-court rulings in favour of two drivers, Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, in a case dating back six years. Throughout their fight, the pair had argued that UK Uber drivers were illegally denied holiday pay and the minimum wage as a result of how the firm frames its business model.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court stated: “New ways of working organised through digital platforms pose pressing questions about the employment status of the people who do the work involved.” Laws such as the National Minimum Wage Act, it stressed, “were manifestly enacted to protect those whom Parliament considers to be in need of protection and not just those who are designated by their employer as qualifying for it.” (Lord Leggatt, Judgment in Uber BV and others v Aslam and others, UK Supreme Court, 19 February 2021)

Last year, Aslam and Farrar launched the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU), in which they respectively serve as president and general secretary. In an ADCU statement, Farrar said: “This ruling will fundamentally re-order the gig economy and bring an end to rife exploitation of workers by means of algorithmic and contract trickery.”

He added: “Uber drivers are cruelly sold a false dream of endless flexibility and entrepreneurial freedom. The reality has been illegally low pay, dangerously long hours and intense digital surveillance.” (ADCU News, 19 February 2021)

Farrar urged the government to now strengthen the law, so that gig workers would also have access to sick pay and protection from unfair dismissal

The long-running case was so fundamental to Uber’s business model that the firm was compelled to mention it in the risks section of its 2019 US registration as a listed company. In that filing, Uber warned that if it was ultimately unsuccessful against Aslam and Farrar – and complainants in other territories – it would have to reclassify itself from a digital booking agency to a transport provider, with significant tax implications. (US Securities and Exchange Commission, 11 April 2019)

In the more everyday context of the workplace, though, what does the Supreme Court’s judgment mean for the relationship between leaders and gig workers?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s chief executive John Mark Williams says: “If we think about what work is, it’s a transaction: we provide time and effort in the first instance and, in return, we are rewarded. One, key mindset that has developed around this dynamic is that people perceive their time and effort relative to other people’s.

“So, in any scenario where they perceive themselves as delivering similar quantities of time and effort to what other individuals have delivered, they will want a similar reward to what those individuals have received. Otherwise, they will take the view that there is an opportunity cost in delivering their work in the way they do.”

Williams notes: “What that means in practical terms is this: if those people want the same rewards that other individuals receive – and those rewards have been set in the context of traditional organisation-to-employer relationships – we are going to see an ever-greater requirement by gig economy workers to be given some of the protections and benefits that ‘traditional’ employees receive.”

He adds: “Our big, social shift towards the gig economy happened because of convenience: it became very convenient for people to be able to provide their work, skills and effort when they wanted to, not when they had to. What we’re seeing now is that more and more people want to provide more and more time, effort and skills. And in a sense, that nudges us back towards the traditional model of time-based relationship with employers. So, I think this story is going to run and run. It’s not over yet, by any means.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on understanding HR


Source refs:

Lord Leggatt, Judgment in Uber BV and others v Aslam and others, UK Supreme Court, 19 February 2021

ADCU News, 19 February 2021

US Securities and Exchange Commission, 11 April 2019

Image of Uber-branded vehicle courtesy of MOZCO Mateusz Szymanski, via Shutterstock