Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 51 Number 7, February 27, 2021 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Necessity for a new kind of authority in which workers act and speak in their own name

Uber Drivers Make Headway in Control over their Lives and Working Conditions

After a legal battle fought by Uber taxi drivers through the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and the GMB since 2015, the Supreme Court passed its final ruling upholding three earlier court decisions that Uber drivers work for the company and are not self-employed. After two previous appeals, Uber has no further right to challenge this decision.

To state that Uber drivers work for Uber is stating the obvious in the eyes of most people. However, Uber taxis are part of the "gig economy" being foisted upon many workers at present, which is developing under large gig monopolies like Uber, Deliveroo and others, with the aim of disrupting the most basic employment arrangements to the detriment of all. Gig workers are not afforded their rights and conditions under normal contracts, and can be employed or not employed at the drop of a hat. They do not have the usual, established arrangements of sick pay, breaks or holiday entitlement afforded to workers on standard contracts.

The fraudulent claim of companies like Uber is that they merely operate as booking agencies for independent contractors. But their disruption to employment relations and the labour market does nothing to change the fundamental social relation that exists between workers and those who buy their capacity to work. The reality is that they employ workers on a massive scale, exercise total control over working conditions and seize vast amounts of profit from the new value their workers produce.

Uber does not provide cars to drivers: the driver provides the car and maintains it. The owner must be listed as an insured driver on the vehicle's private insurance policy. Uber drivers are responsible for covering the cost of petrol and ensuring the comfort and safety of the passengers. It is a highly lucrative and profitable industry as the normal overheads associated with traditional taxis and minicabs do not exist for the controlling company, these having been passed to the drivers.

Uber drivers are subject to zero-hour terms, and the rate of pay itself is poor. Further, the company applies pressure for total flexibility from the drivers it employs, whose working routine is under the automated control of its software platform. Arguing that drivers are self-employed, Uber has been insistent that they should only be considered working when driving passengers, not during the whole period of time when logged onto the app, meaning that driver waiting time is unpaid. It is a significant victory that successive courts, and now the Supreme Court, have thrown out this argument. The ruling also means that the workers are entitled to back pay and compensation.

The decision of the court provides legal leverage to the drivers' demand for greater control over their conditions of work and their lives, in opposition to the aims of the monopolies that employ them, and is therefore a political victory for all workers in the gig economy.

Uber was first taken to an employment tribunal by drivers Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar in 2015, centred on establishing a legal precedent that Uber drivers are employed by Uber, and as such are entitled to rights such as the minimum wage and holiday pay. Aslam and Farrar went on to found United Private Hire Drivers, now the ADCU, registered as an official union in July last year [1]. The tribunal ruled in the drivers' favour in 2016, after which Uber launched a number of appeals culminating in the Supreme Court ruling.

"I think it's a massive achievement in the way that we were able to stand up against a giant," said Mr Aslam. "We didn't give up and we were consistent - no matter what we went through emotionally or physically or financially, we stood our ground."

GMB national officer Mick Rix called it a "historic win", saying: "The Supreme Court has upheld the decision of three previous courts, backing up what GMB has said all along; Uber drivers are workers and entitled to breaks, holiday pay and minimum wage. Uber must now stop wasting time and money pursuing lost legal causes and do what's right by the drivers who prop up its empire. GMB will now consult with our Uber driver members over their forthcoming compensation claim."

Uber is a global monopoly operating in over 10,000 cities in 69 countries, employing 4 million drivers and 22,000 other staff, delivering 7 billion trips and taking $65 billion in gross bookings in 2019 [2]. As well as taxis, Uber deals in food delivery via its subsidiaries Uber Eats, Postmates and Zomato.

Such global oligarchs are using software platforms to target transport and delivery in particular. The potential of scientific advances is to favour the interests of society, increasing efficiency and reducing impact on the environment through the improvements in planning that it could allow. Instead, these oligarchs use technology to disrupt markets with the aim of private expansion of their control over the economy in competition with both their rivals and existing, traditional forms of transport and delivery.

These oligarchs have built up a giant gig economy as a means to abdicate responsibility for the wellbeing of those they employ and for the provision of the materials and conditions of their work. They aim to sidestep the established labour market, avoiding wage standards by defining away their workers as self-employed, as well as the market for their product, in this case rides, setting prices without restriction. They seek to exploit all loopholes to which their business model gives rise in order to avoid taxes and obscure from any public authority the added-value they expropriate. Further, their refusal to recognise workers as workers translates into a refusal to recognise their workers' union rights and rights to make collective agreements.

The assertion that workers employed under the app management model are not actually workers at all but self-employed aims to deny the social relation they stand in with those who hire them. Within this relation are issues of control over terms of employment and working conditions, and under this management model, the level of control is near total.

One feature that was exposed during the legal battle is just how much control Uber have over their workers' lives. It was legally recognised that Uber's setting of fares means that these so-called self-employed drivers have no say on what they earn. The only way to earn more is to increase the number of hours worked. Neither have the drivers a say over their contract terms. Uber monitors performance via a star-rating system carrying the threat of termination. Uber also penalises drivers who turn down enough rides, the number again being set by Uber. Importantly, the court recognised drivers' "position of subordination".

Looked at from the point of view of who is in control, Uber and similar monopolies argue that, if it is anyone, it is certainly not them. We are just a booking agency, they claim, putting people who want a ride in touch with others who can provide it! They would have us believe that they are simply enablers, and it is the drivers who are in control. In so doing, they are arguing for their own superfluousness. The issue is, who runs the app, and what happens to the value that the drivers produce in taking people from A to B? Who decides the working conditions of those drivers?

A locally-organised system utilising software such as an app to efficiently organise transport in the service of a particular community could be a big advance on current methods. This is blocked by the control taken over these modern techniques by the big business and the financial oligarchs that are in command.

The legal victory, and the organisation it took to achieve it, is a double win. Not only does it set a precedent that reflects the reality that gig workers are employed workers, but it is also a critical step in the direction of these workers organising themselves in defence of their rights and claims on the value they create. Ultimately, the need is to organise a new direction for the economy. The victory raises the question of who has control over their working conditions, and who decides how and with what aim their work should be organised.

The win has been called historic, with profound implications for the whole gig economy. These implications can only be realised by a public authority that is willing and able to ensure that the gig monopolies comply with them, that the ruling is not avoided or simply ignored or declared to apply in a limited way or to only a few gig workers. It is up to workers to constitute this new kind of authority in which they act and speak in their own name.


Notes
1. According to the ADCU, it organised the first national strike (#UStrike) against Uber in 2018. More recently, it initiated the founding of the International Alliance of App Based Transport Workers (IAATW) after a conference held in Oxford in January 2020, the first ever such gathering of app-based transport workers, involving drivers from over 23 countries.
See https://www.adcu.org.uk and |https://iaatw.org.
2. Uber, 2020 Proxy Statement and Notice of Annual Meeting of Stockholders
https://s23.q4cdn.com/407969754/files/doc_financials/2019/ar/Uber-Technologies-Inc-2020-Proxy-Statement.pdf


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