The ongoing expansion of the online marketplace is driving incredible growth of the so called gig economy, in which large numbers of individuals now earn their living. Companies like Uber suggest that they act purely as online intermediaries between consumers and those willing to provide services, individuals who in Uber's view are independent contractors in business in their own right, choosing when and where to work. But currently such individuals have very little say on the terms and conditions governing their engagement, and some may work long hours for low returns. The GMB union has successfully challenged Uber's stance, finding agreement from the Employment Tribunal that Uber drivers should in fact be regarded as legally protected "workers", with rights to holiday and the minimum wage.
The Tribunal reasons state that Uber resorted to "fictions" and "twisted language" in its documentation to compel agreement with its view of being an online intermediary rather than a transportation service. In support of the recent decision in the US the panel agreed that "Uber is no more a "technology company" than Yellow Cab is a "technology company" because it uses CB radios to dispatch taxi cabs". Even more damning the "notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common 'platform'" is described as "faintly ridiculous".
This is likely only the first battle in a long war, which is already being fought in many different countries. Uber will be dissecting the terms of the judgment to decide whether any changes to its approach will allow it to continue with its business model, and how best to present an appeal. However, it is important to remember that this ruling does not have the same weight as the decision of a higher court, so Uber may be wise to be cautious in taking this further at all – the GMB would be delighted to achieve a binding judgment for drivers across the country. In the meantime, many cab conversations will probably be unusually cheerful this weekend as drivers tot up how much they might be able to claim and contemplate better future conditions.
New technology is undoubtedly assuring the growth of the gig economy, but the future of workers' rights remains uncertain. Companies operating in this sector should be looking carefully at their models and ensure that they have suitable contracts and policies in place. This judgment confirms that the risk of legal challenge is all too real.