Uber drivers are workers, says Supreme Court

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Employment Law on Monday, February 22nd, 2021

Uber drivers are to be treated as workers, and not self-employed contractors, according to a ruling handed down on 19 February 2021 by the UK Supreme Court. The decision follows a long-running legal battle between the ride-hailing app and its employees, over workers’ rights such as minimum wage and holiday pay. The global firm appealed to the Supreme Court after losing three previous appeals.

The case began in late 2016, when two drivers, James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, took Uber before an employment tribunal, on behalf of a group of drivers, for the right to be classed as employees and granted basic rights such as holiday pay, minimum wage and paid rest breaks. The six justices on the tribunal ruled in favour of the drivers, sparking a number of appeals from the global giant, which were finally quashed once and for all by the Supreme Court ruling.

Lord Legatt, who handed down the decision, also stated that drivers should not only be considered as working when passengers are in the car, but paid for any time they are logged into the app. Previously, Uber stated that if drivers were ruled to be workers, it would only pay them for passenger journeys.  

The judgment

To reach its decision, Supreme Court judges considered a range of factors, including:

  • Uber, rather than drivers, set the fare – drivers have no control over what they earn
  • Drivers are penalised if they reject too many bookings, meaning they have restricted control over the hours they work
  • Drivers’ star ratings and reviews are monitored, with Uber retaining the right to terminate their employment if it dips too low
  • Importantly, drivers have no say on the terms of their contract with Uber.

However, the above contradicts some of the key features of self-employment as defined by GOV.UK, for example:

  • They decide what work they do and when, where or how to do it
  • They run their business and take responsibility for its success or failure
  • They charge an agreed fixed price for their work.

Uber contracts criticised

Supreme Court judges said that the contracts Uber issued to its drivers “can be seen to have as their object precluding a driver from claiming rights conferred on workers by the applicable legislation.”

Mr Farrar, lead co-claimant together with Mr Aslam, said: “This ruling will fundamentally reorder the gig economy and bring an end to rife exploitation of workers by means of algorithmic and contract trickery. 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.”

Only a small amount affected, says Uber

Although Uber is not permitted to launch any further appeals against the ruling, the firm insists it only applies to a small number of drivers who used the app in 2016. It says that it has committed to making “significant changes” to its business model since then, offering drivers more flexibility, free income protection insurance and control over how they work and earn. Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for northern and eastern Europe, said: “We are committed to doing more and will now consult with every active driver across the UK to understand the changes they want to see.”

Even so, Uber faces a significant compensation bill, with the judgment paving the way for drivers to potentially claim thousands of pounds back from the firm.

And the gig economy?

The landmark judgment is being seen as a “historic” moment, according to the GMB union, with huge ramifications for other firms that use self-employed or zero-hours contract workers. The gig economy has been deemed exploitative by many of its opponents, who hope that this judgment, and others like it, will pave the way to better rights for the UK’s millions of gig workers.





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