Uber rights U-turn is just the latest stage of the journey to decent work

By Tim Sharp

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.

Uber’s PR machine has gamely sought to present  its announcement that it will provide holiday pay, minimum wage (at least for some hours) and offer pension contributions 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.

Uber’s reversal is also just the latest in a succession of court battles at home and abroad won by gig economy workers as they enforce their rights against employers.

In the UK, and indeed across the world, gig economy workers are winning court battles to secure their rights.

But workers still face having to conduct lengthy campaigns and court battles to enforce their rights.

Studying the small print

For years Uber has sought to dodge its obligations by seeking to claim it is just a technology business, not a cab operator and its drivers are self-employed with few rights.

But the Supreme Court was clear earlier this month that even the most elaborately written contract cannot be used to block the purpose of legislation intended to protect workers.
Now, of course, workers and unions will be scrutinising the small print on Uber’s new offer.

Will there be a fair deal on drivers’ expenses? What protection will young workers get? What about Uber Eats, its food delivery operation?
And most crucially, does Uber really think that it can avoid the judges’ instruction that a driver should be paid for the whole time they are logged into the Uber app?

Employers can’t cherry-pick

Uber’s court defeat should serve as a reminder that it 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 technology innovators. But the tactics it employs are familiar to trade unions.

Just as in the past, desperate workers were forced to queue at the factory gate for work, so it is in employers’ interests to have drivers idling, unpaid waiting for taxi work.

Unions have a long history of fighting employers in the docks, in construction and the newer gig economy who believe they can just follow those bits of the law that leave their business model undisturbed.
But in the meantime, those who lose out are workers and those good employers who are trying to do the right thing by those who work for them.

Flexibility

One argument that has been comprehensively demolished is that there is a trade-off between rights and flexibility.

But in the UK and overseas, the courts routinely find that just because someone has the flexibility to choose if and when to work, they don’t lose their employment rights.

Indeed, Just Eat, a rival to Uber in food delivery, has said it is paying couriers UK wages, sick pay and pension contributions.
The sensible way forward for Uber and others like it is to belatedly sit down with unions and discuss the best way to proceed.

Government needs to act

Meanwhile, the government can‚Äôt just sit by.¬†It promised to ‚Äúprotect and enhance‚ÄĚ employment rights after¬†Brexit¬†.

But a long-awaited employment bill has yet to appear. And cases like Uber show that far more needs to be done to ensure workers can exercise their rights.

Taking tribunals cases is both costly and time-consuming.  To tilt the balance, there should be a statutory presumption that individuals have employee status unless the employer can demonstrate otherwise. For self-employment should be a choice for individuals, not something that is imposed.

Employment tribunals need to be given the power to make wider recommendations so that their decisions can be applied to an entire workforce rather than forcing worker-after-worker to take tribunal cases.

In many workplaces trade union reps help workers understand and enforce their rights. Trade unions need the right to access workplaces and make contact with workers so they can explain the benefits of joining.

And there needs to be beefed-up state enforcement to ensure that employers meet their obligations in areas like payment of the minimum wage.

First published by the TUC on  17th Mar 2021

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