Good news has felt scarce for some time now. But this morning’s announcement from the Supreme Court, compelling Uber to recognise its drivers as workers, has come as a welcome ray of sunshine in an otherwise dismal political landscape.
Uber drivers have, up until now, been treated as ‘self-employed’, meaning they go without statutory sick pay, a minimum wage, or paid holiday – but they do have to cover their own costs by providing their vehicle. The perks of self-employment have been denied to them: Uber sets their fares, which determine how much drivers can earn. Drivers risk being penalised by Uber if they deny too many requests for rides. Their terms and conditions are set by Uber, and their performance is monitored through the ‘star system’.
Today’s victory compels Uber to recognise their drivers as workers rather than self-employed, due to this relationship. This could mean roughly 60,000 drivers will win the right to a minimum wage and paid time off.
This decision hasn’t come out of the blue – it’s the result of a years-long legal battle by campaigners and unions like the GMB to make Uber comply with existing legislation. It is shameful that this struggle was so long and arduous, but it provides some important lessons.
Why did this victory take so long to achieve? It’s actually not unusual for a company as big as Uber to get away with illegal employment practices. In fact, it’s widespread in an economy where financial assets (sometimes referred to as ‘capital’) rule the roost, and worker power has been eroded due to a raft of anti-union legislation, a highly atomised workforce, complex and opaque supply chains, the proliferation of ‘unskilled’ labour which considers workers disposable, and money generated through complex financial practices rather than workers making products.
The power that labour (i.e., workers) have in the face of capital is collective action. Throughout history, the improvements we’ve seen in our working lives—paid time off sick, the right to a weekend and holidays, and the obligation for an employer to provide a safe working environment, not to mention decent wages which we can live off—have been hard won by the power of workers coming together through trade unions, and hitting their bosses where it hurts.
But people working in the gig economy are far less likely to be working in physical workplaces, where they can organise with their colleagues to take action against their employers as a collective. Delivery and private hire drivers epitomise this dilemma. Without the support and solidarity of colleagues, it’s a terrifying and seemingly insurmountable battle to take on your employer – even when they’re engaged in criminal employment practices like Uber.
That’s why we must see this victory for what it really is: a victory of re-energised worker power, led by some of the most oppressed workers in society: 94 percent of minicab workers are Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), and face systemic oppression across the spectrum of the British employment market.
Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed the growth of new unions, such as the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW). These young unions extend their sights and tactics beyond the union struggles of the twentieth-century workplace, in order to support workers in precarious, atomising work. This new flourishing of the union movement might be using different tactics to fit emerging forms of work, but it’s the same dynamic which persists: labour vs. capital. While the type of work in the digital economy might have changed radically, the power dynamic is the same as it ever was.
What’s more, today’s victory is a hefty pushback against attempts to divide working-class organising along lines of race and migration. For too long we’ve heard the narrative that the decline in working standards is due to migrants undercutting British workers. Men born outside the EU are overrepresented in the passenger travel sector, and may be under the brutal surveillance of hostile environment policies. Hostile environment restrictions drive people into unsafe forms of work with little recourse to legal action if their immigration status is insecure.
This court victory doesn’t change much for those without secure migration status, who fear exposing themselves to the eyes of the law. But the worker power which has been built, the range of techniques which have been tried and successfully tested, and the exposure of the real villain of the piece—a big corporation devoid of a conscience—are all hugely significant.
What’s next for Uber isn’t quite clear, but today’s verdict could leave them with a hefty bill for compensating the drivers in this battle for what it owes them in minimum wages and overtime, and backdated. The important question is this: does this decision mean that Uber will recognise its drivers as workers across the board?
For a company who has pushed back so forcefully on this specific case—one which showed Uber to be blatantly failing to operate in compliance with legislation—it’s unlikely we’ll see them embracing fair employment practices any time soon. Crucially, today’s judgement only applies to the two drivers involved in the case – other drivers will have to follow suit by taking their battles to court in order to receive the sums they’re also owed. A more likely prospect for the future is that this is merely the start of continued court battles with Uber, as they tweak terms and conditions for workers in order to deny them a fair working life.
That is why we must see today’s ruling for what it is: a victory for worker power, not legislation. The court victory is an important milestone in this battle, and one for which the two drivers who brought the case should be celebrated. But it’s not the end of the fight against Uber, or any other gig economy employers. What’s key here is the strength of workers which has been built, and the ingenuity of the union movement, which has adapted to fight for a decent standard of living in the complex and challenging environment of our economy.