UK: Uber and the Gig Economy – is the law keeping up?
By: Emma Naughton
After a preliminary hearing spanning seven days (including reading the five-volume bundle and time for deliberation), an Employment Tribunal has handed down its much anticipated ruling that Uber drivers are workers rather than independent contractors. The drivers can, therefore, benefit from statutory protections, such as 5.6 weeks’ paid annual leave each year, a maximum 48 hour average working week (in the absence of an opt-out), rest breaks, the National Minimum Wage, potentially the National Living Wage, and the protection of the whistleblowing legislation.
The Tribunal examined in detail Uber’s business model but rejected Uber’s assertion that it is a provider of technology services rather than transportation services. Passengers can order a taxi via Uber’s smartphone app and Uber’s drivers can then decide (with the extent of the autonomy of such decision one of the factors questioned in this case) whether to drive that passenger to their requested destination and, if they do, the route to be taken. The passenger pays the fare to Uber by credit or debit card, Uber takes a 25 per cent service fee, and pays the balance of fares to the driver on a weekly basis.
The Tribunal looked at various aspects of the arrangement as it operates in reality, rather than as described in Uber’s contracts, to determine whether the drivers are workers as opposed to truly independent contractors. For example, the Tribunal noted the fact that, if a driver declines three trips in a row whilst logged on to the app and so ostensibly available to work, he will be forcibly logged out of the app for 10 minutes. The Tribunal also took note of the fact that Uber prohibits drivers from agreeing with the passenger a fare which is higher than that set by Uber and that Uber usually bears the cost of any cleaning necessitated by a passenger soiling a vehicle.
In summary, the Tribunal concluded that Uber is a taxi service and employs drivers to provide that service in a way which, in a number of key respects, Uber controls. Consequently, the Tribunal held that each of the drivers in this case fell squarely within the statutory definition of a worker as an individual who works under a contract to personally perform services for another party to the contract (Uber) which is not a customer of a business undertaking carried on by the individual. However, we note that this contract did not actually exist (in the sense that no such express agreement had been put in place) but had to be inferred by the Tribunal from the facts as found by it. It may be that the scope for doing so will be one of the grounds on which Uber appeals against the Tribunal’s judgment.
The Tribunal went on to find that, whilst the drivers are under no obligation to switch on the app through which their instructions are received and there is no prohibition against dormant drivers, once the app is switched on, the driver is in the territory where he is licensed to operate and he is able and willing to accept assignments, he is then on working time until one of those conditions ceases to apply.
For the purposes of the National Minimum Wage Regulations, the Tribunal stated that the work carried out by drivers does not constitute “time work” or “output work”, as the driver’s entitlement to pay is not limited to when he is carrying a passenger and does not depend on him completing a particular number of trips. Accordingly, the work was classified as “unmeasured work”, so it is likely that the relevant rate of pay will be calculated by reference to the periods of time when the driver is logged on to the app in his licensed territory and ready to accept passengers, rather than just the time spent driving passengers to their destinations.
This decision is extremely fact specific. Furthermore, Uber has already announced its intention to appeal against it. The outcome is likely to have wide-ranging implications for the concept of the gig economy, the proponents of which claim that it benefits individuals who want the flexibility to work how, when and for whoever they please, in an increasingly interconnected and digitally virtual employment sphere.
The employment landscape is changing rapidly and the challenges to the existing statutory framework presented by the Uber case could be seen as demonstrating that the law also needs to change in order to keep up. In support of its decision, the Tribunal cited an earlier judgment which identified the underlying policy behind the definition of “worker” as the need to extend statutory protection to individuals who are vulnerable to exploitation in the same way as employees. Whilst this is clearly not a new issue, as is evidenced by some of the previous case law referred to in the Uber judgment, perhaps in light of the rise of the gig economy, such policy needs to change and the law, therefore, needs to change with it.