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Uber loses Supreme Court appeal

March 8, 2021
Employment Law

It's been one of the most keenly anticipated legal decisions of recent times. So, what did the Supreme Court say when it was asked to consider whether Uber drivers should be treated as workers?

The story so far

This case involves the taxi-hailing app, Uber. For some time now, Uber has argued that its drivers are not its ‘workers’ for the purposes of employment law; instead, they are self-employed. In turn, Uber is merely the provider of a technological platform through which self-employed taxi drivers are able to connect with potential customers, to whom they directly provide their tax-driving services.

So what?

The implications of this dispute are significant. If all Uber drivers are actually ‘workers’, Uber would have to provide them with paid annual leave and ensure they receive the national minimum wage. The effect on Uber’s business model and its operating costs could be very significant and could very well drive up the cost of using Uber taxis.

So, what did the Supreme Court say?

Despite Uber's attempts to create genuinely self-employed relationships by the careful drafting of its contracts and paperwork, the Supreme Court was unimpressed. The judges concluded that when they looked at the essential nature of the relationship between Uber and its drivers, given the subordination, dependency and control that are the hallmarks of a ‘worker’ relationship, they were satisfied that the Employment Tribunal had rightly concluded that the claimant drivers were ‘workers’ for employment law purposes.

So, what now?

You might imagine that this judgment would give Uber significant cause for concern. The workers affected by this judgment now have the right to claim both the national minimum wage and paid holiday. What's more, the Supreme Court was of the view that Uber drivers ought to be regarded as working whenever they are logged onto the Uber app, regardless of whether they have a customer in their car. This has the potential to increase even further the running costs of the Uber operation.

Surprisingly, however, Uber purports to be fairly relaxed about the situation. It alleges that "significant changes" have been made to its business model since this claim was first submitted.  As a result, Uber seemingly argues that its current drivers still fall outside of the definition of ‘worker’, even if drivers engaged on previous terms and conditions did not.

For many, Uber’s position seems disingenuous; it certainly appears to ignore the wide-reaching and purposive nature of the Supreme Court's decision. Nevertheless, there is the prospect that new claimants engaged on the current Uber terms may now need to come forward with claims against the company, in order to put further pressure on Uber to back down.

It's fair to say this looks like a dispute that might still have some way to run. We will continue to watch with interest.

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