While some people value the freedom, campaigners warn workers in the gig economy have low levels of protection with next to no employee rights and no entitlement to sick pay or holiday pay.
Insecure work is currently at record levels, with the number of people on zero-hours contracts – and no guarantee of employment or earnings – at an all-time high of more than one million.
Charity St Mungo’s warned in September 2020 that the rise of “transient work” – such as temporary and zero-hour contracts, agency work and self-employment – was pushing some to the brink of homelessness.
And last December, Citizens Advice said those in the self-employed “gig economy” were facing higher levels of pandemic hardship compared to the rest of the working population.
What has the Supreme Court said about Uber drivers?
Now, the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled Uber must classify its drivers as workers rather than self-employed, entitling them to minimum wage and holiday pay.
Its six justices said Uber would have to consider its drivers to be workers between the time they log on to the app and log off. Previously, drivers were only considered to be working when driving a passenger.
Unions have called the ruling the “end” of a protracted legal battle.
After losing three earlier judgements, the first made by a London employment tribunal in October 2016, Uber appealed at The Supreme Court.
Unionists and former drivers James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, who brought the first tribunal almost five years ago, said they were “thrilled and relieved” by the ruling.
What does this mean for Uber drivers?
The United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD) branch of the Independent Workers Union (IWGB) said the decision was “very significant” for all private hire drivers in the UK.
The union wrote on Twitter: “As a worker, you have certain legal protections and benefits, such as the right to paid holiday and the right to receive the National Minimum Wage.
“You also have a right to union representation in disciplinary matters and to collective bargaining.”
The UPHD added the ruling could help them push for better pay and conditions. It will now help eligible drivers make claims for financial compensation as a result of Uber not providing holiday pay in the past.
“This judgement gives us a significant opening to push for better pay and conditions at Uber,” it added.
“Now is the time for all of us to take courage and redouble our fight for justice.”
As drivers must now be paid for the time they spend on the app, unions said Uber had an incentive to reduce the number of drivers sitting in cars waiting for work.
James Farrar, general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union, said: “This is a win-win-win for drivers, passengers and cities. It means Uber now has the correct economic incentives not to oversupply the market with too many vehicles and too many drivers.
“The upshot of that oversupply has been poverty, pollution and congestion.”
However, some drivers expressed concern about what the ruling meant for the flexibility currently afforded to them.
Mike, an Uber driver based in Glasgow who asked not to be named as he feared the company may not renew his license, told The Big Issue that drivers in the city were angry the ruling had been brought forward.
“If I am a worker, Uber will tell me ‘look, Mike, you need to go to work at 8 o’clock’,” he said.
“This job, you do it for the flexibility. What is the point in doing this job if you do not have flexibility? There is no point being a taxi driver if you do not have flexibility.”
How has Uber responded?
Despite the taxi giant insisting it “respected” the Court’s decision, it has been clear in saying the judgement does not reclassify all UK drivers as workers.
Uber claimed this legal case looked at the app as it was in 2016 and, therefore, does not consider changes made to the business since then.
It also stressed this judgement referred to a “small number” of claimants and pointed out that a “worker” is a legal classification specific to the UK and does not give drivers the legal status of “employee”.
Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, said: “We respect the Court’s decision which focussed on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016.
“Since then, we have made some significant changes to our business, guided by drivers every step of the way.
“These include giving even more control over how they earn and providing new protections like free insurance in case of sickness or injury.
“We are committed to doing more and will now consult with every active driver across the UK to understand the changes they want to see.”
What could the Uber ruling mean for workers in the wider gig economy?
Unions will now attempt to keep the pressure on operators in the UK to provide holiday pay and minimum wage following the ruling.
IWGB Couriers, the trade union for couriers and food delivery riders, called it a “huge step towards justice” for “exploited” workers across the gig economy.
The Labour Party said the ruling sent “a very clear message” to companies whose workforce was made up of those in the gig economy.
Andy McDonald MP, shadow employment rights and protections secretary, said: “This is a hugely important ruling with significant implications for the gig economy. Uber drivers and all gig economy workers should get basic rights at work, including decent pay, safety and job security.
“The landmark judgement is also a testament to the hard work of the ADCU and GMB trade unions and drivers who have brought about this action.
“Increasing numbers of workers are engaged on exploitative zero hours and insecure contracts.
“The Supreme Court has sent a very clear message that companies should not game the system by undercutting the rights of their employees.”