Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

We took Uber to court and won – but it never should have been our fight

Enforcing the law is the government’s job not ours. But, like Uber, the government has offloaded its responsibility on to precarious workers

James Farrar
Wednesday 19 December 2018 18:48 GMT
Protesters gather as Uber challenges 'worker' status ruling in landmark gig economy case

There is a soul-shattering callousness to some of Uber’s recruitment advertising. It promises precarious workers a future of freedom, self-determination and riches, but delivers the opposite.

One billboard at Uber’s London driver recruitment centre shows a picture of a smiling man named Asif alongside this attributed quote: "I make three times more money compared to my previous courier job. With Uber, I don’t need to worry about bills. If my child wants a new jacket – I tell him, buy two if you want."

As I discovered while working for Uber, life behind the wheel can become a blur of endless traffic, crushing loneliness, enduring fatigue and relationships strained by absence. As an Uber manager once put it to me while trying to convince me that yet another fare cut would counter-intuitively lead to higher incomes: "if your wheels ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin'".

It is this business philosophy that has seen Uber drivers like me take home little more than £5 per hour some months, with earnings on a steady decline. Even taking a single day off is a luxury many can’t afford, it’s an existence Frank Field MP likened to the sweated labour of the Victorian era.

That’s why three years ago, together with my friend and fellow Uber driver Yaseen Aslam, we made a decision to take Uber to court over the basic employment rights it was denying us.

In our case, Uber has fought to deny drivers their right to minimum-wage protection for all hours logged on the platform plus holiday pay. At the heart of our dispute is a notorious contract between Uber BV Netherlands and Uber drivers in the UK which various judges have described as containing "fictions" and "twisted language".

The contract, the work of an army of lawyers, declares itself as our agent and demands indemnification so the driver protects Uber from all risk. It forces agreement to a constructed reality that it is a technology company and not a transportation provider – despite being a private hire transport operator licensed by Transport for London.

Uber has form in playing a virtual PR shell game and is brazen in its willingness to tell different versions of the truth to suit different audiences. In October, Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi met with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. Minutes retrieved through a Freedom of Information request cite Khosrowshahi as telling the minister: "Uber has a more integrated relationship with consumers than most other tech companies because it provides a physical service, not just a platform and as such it has important responsibilities."

However, just one week later, Uber’s QC was telling the Court of Appeal that Uber was merely a software platform and that any contract for transportation services exists only between the passenger and driver.

In dismissing Uber’s appeal today, the Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton and Lord Justice Bean agreed that “drivers could not be bound by facts or legal propositions of which they were unaware and/or which were false.”

They were scathing about Uber’s flexible relationship with the truth: “for Uber London Limited to be stating to its statutory regulator that it is operating a private hire vehicle service in London, and is a fit and proper person to do so, while at the same time arguing in this litigation that it is merely an affiliate of a Dutch registered company which licenses tens of thousands of proprietors of small businesses to use its software, contributes to the air of contrivance and artificiality which pervades Uber’s case.”

While I am relieved by today’s ruling, I am disappointed that implementation is again delayed while Uber seeks yet another appeal. This is nothing more than a cynical play for time to deny the inevitable changes necessary to its business model while it pushes ahead with a $120bn stock market flotation.

I am proud to be a lead claimant in this successful case alongside Yaseen Aslam but in truth we should not be in court at all. Enforcing the law is the government’s job not ours. But, like Uber, the government has offloaded its responsibility on to precarious workers in the greatest need but least able to defend themselves. I could never have sustained the fight had I not been a member of the IWGB union.

The government promised us badly needed reforms to address problems of the gig economy, but the proposals it delivered this week in response were just pitiful window dressing with little focus or resource to tackle the real problem – a lack of compliance and enforcement.

There is nothing special or mould breaking about gig economy employers. They have been masters of spin but when it comes down to it, the physical work remains the same – a worker on a car or on a bike delivering a physical service to real consumers, just like Khosrowshahi said. We must not be blinded by the hype. They must be made to obey the law.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in