In England, Uber drivers are not small business owners, and they are not performing a “job on the side” in their spare time to supplement their income. They are workers — that is, employees — and they must be paid the minimum wage, even if they have no protection against unfair dismissal like “real” employees.
The first instance ruling of a British labor court could revolutionize the fate of the gig economy, the on-demand market of online “odd jobs.” The 40,000 Uber drivers, as well as the delivery bikers for Deliveroo or Foodora, are entitled to paid holidays, pensions and the rights of other workers.
This ruling is not binding in the common law courts. However, the sentence issued last Friday is significant because it could also suggest the direction of U.S. federal courts, which are weighing similar cases. It could also inspire a cultural shift in Italy, where we saw the first protests of Foodora riders in Turin.
The judgment applies to James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, who acted on behalf of a group of 19 colleagues. They claim to be employees of the “start-up” with the highest stock market value in the world, $62.5 billion, and not to be independent entrepreneurs. According to Uber, the drivers perform a “side job,” independent contractors who can choose where and when they offer their services.
In a text that does not miss the withering irony and wise use of the language of Shakespeare and Milton, the judges wrote: “The idea that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businessmen connected to a platform is vaguely ridiculous to our eyes. The drivers cannot negotiate with clients. They offer and accept rides adhering strictly to Uber’s terms.”
Another three legal levels remain. Uber has appealed against the judgment. The plaintiff drivers will have to wait until the end of the process to obtain compensation, if any. However, it was clarified that the company is responsible for their living and working conditions. This guidance could be useful in many other cases of individual and union appeals against Uber or in other sectors of the gig economy. In November, other judgments are expected on lawsuits filed by British delivery bikers of four online takeaway companies, including Deliveroo. Also in these cases, workers are fighting for their right to be recognized as employees, not as self-employed contractors, and their entitlement to minimum wage and social protections.
The English ruling shatters the logic of the ”Uberization of labor.” The drivers are not entrepreneurs who contract their services directly with clients, and they depend on the evaluations handled by the algorithm owned by the company. They are obliged to answer calls. In the case of refusal, the company could retaliate against the driver arguing a damage to the corporate image.
In July, the testimony of one of the plaintiffs — who earned less than £5 per hour, below the British minimum wage of £7.20 — was decisive for resolving the problem. Drivers are workers because they suffer under “tremendous pressure” and carry out the directives of an employer.
Such recognition is crucial for the coffers of welfare. In England, there would be up to 460,000 workers classified instrumentally as self-employed, and not employees, with a loss of £314 million per year in taxes and contributions. It is the same problem of “false VAT accounts” in Italy. The Fornero Law was an attempt to solve the issue but actually, it made the situation worse. The British case also shows that the battle on the classification of “independent work” looks again to the definition of work itself.
The digital one is a decisive test. This pushed Prime Minister Theresa May to promote a survey on the gig economy in Britain, which is believed to account for 6 percent of citizens. The London judges have accused Uber of resorting to lies, twisted language and a new terminology to disguise the true sense of the words it uses. The challenge of giving this type of work a status and a name today is another effect of a new class struggle.