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UK: Uber drivers win six year battle over workers' rights in groundbreaking ruling

Supreme Court rules that Uber drivers are entitled to workers’ rights

‘No business model should ever depend on precarious and exploitative forms of employment’ - Kate Allen

A landmark ruling that has classified a group of Uber drivers as workers rather than independent contractors is a “huge win for workers’ rights”, Amnesty International said today.

Uber drivers won a six-year legal battle over their rights today (19 February), as Supreme Court judges ruled that they will be entitled to claim workers’ rights, including the national minimum wage, paid holiday and the right to form a union.

Amnesty has welcomed the ruling calling it a “significant step” towards transforming the gig economy in Britain by ensuring that workers’ rights protections are granted to digital platform workers.

Uber should now hire its drivers as “workers”, which would mean Uber drivers are entitled to minimum rates of pay, rights under working time and whistleblowing legislation, protection from discrimination and for those whose earnings are liable for National Insurance contributions also access to statutory sick pay.

Today’s judgement dismissed Uber’s appeal and affirmed that the drivers were “workers” under UK law. The Court found that “the transportation service performed by drivers and offered to passengers through the Uber app is tightly defined and controlled by Uber”, and as such drivers are entitled to protection under employment law. Importantly, the court also held that the claimants were working for the company whenever they had the Uber app switched on, not just when driving passengers between destinations.  

However, under UK law those classified as “workers” are not entitled to the same protections as employees, and as such still do not have a full right to sick pay, maternity and paternity leave, and the right not to be unfairly dismissed. 

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director, said:

“This ground-breaking ruling is a huge win for workers’ rights and a significant step towards transforming the gig economy in Britain.

“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the vital need to protect and respect the workers at the frontline who have continued to provide us with essential goods and services.

“The pandemic has exposed the dangers of precarious work, with gig workers often forced to continue working despite health risks because they lack basic protections such as entitlement to minimum wage or paid sick leave.

“No business model should ever depend on precarious and exploitative forms of employment.

“Even after this and other rulings, many gig workers around the world still do not have proper labour rights protections, including adequate sick pay that will allow them to self-isolate if they contract COVID-19.

“Today’s decision sets an important precedent that will have wider influence across the UK and beyond in bringing about the protections gig workers deserve.”

Uber drivers’ six-year battle

In 2015, a group of Uber drivers launched litigation against the company in the UK arguing they had been misclassified as self-employed contractors when they were effectively operating as workers. The drivers, supported by the App Drivers and Couriers Union, argued they should be entitled to workers’ rights protections such as minimum wages and paid leave. The Employment Tribunal ruled in favour of the drivers, and the decision was upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Court of Appeal.

International trend to protect gig workers

Today’s ruling is part of a growing international campaign to protect the rights of gig workers and challenge the misclassification of workers as third-party contractors. The practice is core to the business model of many companies in the platform economy, worsening conditions of employment for many gig workers who are left with inadequate labour rights protections.

In June 2020, the Spanish government announced it had initiated the proceedings to pass a law on misclassified self-employed workers in digital platforms following multiple legal challenges, with proposed rules expected imminently.

In August, an appeals court in California upheld a ruling ordering Uber and Lyft to classify its drivers as employees, after a new state law came into force extending employee classification to gig workers.

However, three months later, a ballot, voters in California supported a statute backed by the digital platform companies, Proposition 22, that exempts them from the law. As a result, delivery workers in California have no guaranteed minimum wage, no paid overtime, no paid sick leave, no employer-sponsored health plan or other benefits. Successful litigation on the issue has also been brought by gig workers in various jurisdictions including Brazil, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the US states of New York and Pennsylvania. 

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