A screeching U-turn by Uber on wages, pensions and holiday pay is the just the latest stage in the journey to ensure that all work – including in the gig economy – is decent work.
Uberâs PR machine has gamely soughtÂ toÂ presentÂ Â its announcement that itÂ willÂ provide holiday pay, minimum wage (at least for some hours) and offer pension contributionsÂ as a strategic decision.
The reality is that years of trade union campaigning and a comprehensive defeat in the Supreme Court have forced the change on the company.
Uberâs reversalÂ is also just the latest in a succession of court battles at home andÂ abroadÂ wonÂ by gig economy workersÂ as they enforce their rights againstÂ employers.
In the UK, and indeed across the world,Â gig economyÂ workers areÂ winningÂ courtÂ battlesÂ toÂ secure their rights.
ButÂ workers still faceÂ having to conduct lengthy campaigns and court battlesÂ to enforce their rights.
Studying the small print
For yearsÂ UberÂ hasÂ sought toÂ dodge its obligations by seeking to claimÂ it is just a technology business,Â not a cab operatorÂ and its driversÂ areÂ self-employedÂ withÂ fewÂ rights.
But the Supreme Court wasÂ clearÂ earlier this monthÂ thatÂ even the most elaborately written contract cannot be used to block the purpose of legislation intended to protect workers.
Now, of course,Â workersÂ and unions will be scrutinising the small printÂ on Uberâs new offer.
Will there be a fair deal onÂ driversâÂ expenses? What protection will young workers get?Â What about Uber Eats, its food delivery operation?
And most crucially, does Uber really think that itÂ can avoid the judgesâÂ instructionÂ that a driver should be paid for the whole time they are logged intoÂ the UberÂ app?
Employers canâtÂ cherry-pick
Uberâs court defeatÂ should serve as aÂ reminder that itÂ is not up to employers to decide when protection applies to those who work for them.
Gig economy firms often like to portray themselves as slick technologyÂ innovators. But the tactics it employs are familiar to trade unions.
Just as in the past,Â desperateÂ workers were forced to queue at the factory gate for work, so it is in employersâ interests to haveÂ drivers idling, unpaid waiting for taxi work.
Unions have a long history of fighting employers in the docks, in constructionÂ andÂ the newer gig economyÂ who believe they can just follow those bits of the law that leave their business model undisturbed.
But in the meantime,Â those whoÂ loseÂ outÂ are workers and those good employers who are trying to do the right thing by those who work for them.
One argument that has been comprehensively demolished is that there is aÂ trade-off between rights andÂ flexibility.
But in the UK and overseas,Â the courts routinely find that just because someone has the flexibility to chooseÂ if and whenÂ to work, they donât lose their employmentÂ rights.
Indeed,Â Just Eat,Â a rival toÂ Uber in food delivery, has said it is paying couriersÂ UK wages, sick pay and pension contributions.
The sensible way forwardÂ for Uber and others like itÂ isÂ to belatedly sit down with unions and discuss the best way to proceed.
GovernmentÂ needs toÂ act
Meanwhile, the government canât just sit by.Â It promised to âprotect and enhanceâ employment rights afterÂ BrexitÂ .
ButÂ aÂ long-awaitedÂ employment billÂ has yet to appear.Â And cases like Uber show thatÂ far more needs to be done to ensure workers can exercise their rights.
Taking tribunals cases is both costly and time-consuming.Â Â To tilt the balance, there should be a statutory presumption that individuals have employee status unless theÂ employer can demonstrate otherwise.Â ForÂ self-employment should be a choice for individuals, not something that is imposed.
Employment tribunals need to be given the power to make wider recommendationsÂ so that their decisions can be applied to an entireÂ workforce rather than forcing worker-after-worker to take tribunal cases.
In many workplaces trade union reps help workers understand and enforce their rights.Â Trade unions need the right toÂ access workplaces andÂ make contact withÂ workersÂ so they can explain the benefits of joining.
And there needs to be beefed-up stateÂ enforcement to ensure that employers meet their obligationsÂ in areas like payment of the minimum wage.
First published by the TUC on Â 17th Mar 2021