Uber's employment tribunal could have big implications for the future of work

When is a worker not a worker?

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 20 Jul 2016

The employment tribunal against Uber that begins in the UK today could have big implications for the sharing economy and the future of work.

In common with many of the on-demand start-ups that have sprung up over the last few years, the taxi hailing app makes use of self-employed workers – freeing it from the burden of paying holiday pay, guaranteeing hours and other responsibilities. That might be good for the bottom line but the implications for its workforce are controversial.

The tribunal, brought by the solicitors Leigh Day and the GMB union on behalf of 19 drivers, claims that Uber should actually be treating its drivers like 'workers', not partners, because of the nature of the work they do. ‘We will argue that Uber exerts significant control over its drivers in order to provide an on-demand taxi service to the public. If Uber wishes to operate in this way, and to reap the substantial benefits, then it must acknowledge its responsibilities towards those drivers as workers,’ said Annie Powell, an employment lawyer at Leigh Day.

It’s worth noting that there is a legal distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘employees’ – the latter enjoy the greatest level of rights and protections but the former still enjoy statutory holiday pay, protection against discrimination and other benefits not given to the self-employed.

If the tribunal is successful then it has ramifications that go beyond Britain’s minicab industry. Many other companies that have been taking advantage of the flexible, low-cost nature of such arrangements could be affected too. Just today Amazon has announced it is recruiting a legion of casual workers to deliver parcels for its one-hour Prime Now service and other companies like Deliveroo are expanding fast too.

To some that’s a sign of Britain’s flexible, dynamic workforce in action; to others it represents a decline in quality of life. ‘We are seeing a creeping erosion of employment rights as companies misclassify their workers as self-employed so as to avoid paying them holiday pay and the national minimum wage,’ Powell added. Success for Leigh Day could encourage others in casual work to pursue legal action and also make some companies think twice before assuming self-employment is the best model for them. Regardless of which way the vote goes, disputes over the treatment of casual workers are likely continue for a long while yet.


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