Supreme Court rules that Uber drivers are workers
A step forward but more changes are needed. Supreme Court unanimously rejects Uber's appeal.
As researchers exploring the private hire sector, we are pleased to see today’s Supreme Court ruling that Uber drivers should be classified as workers. This was one of the main recommendations arising from our recent research which explored drivers’ working conditions in a Core City of the UK. Our findings highlighted the precarious conditions facing many drivers:
You could do one job in an hour; the minimum fare on Uber is £3, for you as a rider. Now the slice that Uber take is 25%; it’s a big chunk, and so you’re left with £2.25, and that’s an hour’s worth of work, minus your fuel, minus your running costs, insurance, road tax, etc…. Now, on a busy weekend you will probably make more than £10 an hour, before you take out your expenses, but you’re still going to be hovering around that threshold. If you take it over a week, you find that you’re actually falling below the minimum wage threshold.
DWPE04, private hire drivers’ organisation
Such economic insecurity has become worse during the pandemic, as demand has fallen sharply and state support for drivers has reportedly been difficult to access. Driver insecurity is compounded by an over-supply of drivers, which was a problem before the pandemic. This over-supply was caused by a combination of de-regulation of the sector in 2015 and Uber’s business model which aims to recruit to a level where there is always a driver nearby and available. Classifying drivers as workers will help to address such economic insecurity, by entitling drivers to an hourly wage, paid sick leave and holiday. We recommend that this should be accompanied by legislative change to restrict drivers to fares within the local authority for which they are licensed, and powers for local authorities in England to cap the number of private hire licences, as is already the case in Scotland. Our research has highlighted significant challenges of cross-border operating which makes it harder to local authorities to improve passenger safety, enhance driver welfare and tackle environmental issues.
The Supreme Court ruling sends a clear message that operators share responsibility for drivers’ wellbeing. This opens the way for further claims against other operators and strengthens the case for legislative reform to enshrine this responsibility within the licensing framework. At present, licencing conditions for operators quite rightly include conditions aimed at protecting the welfare of passengers and the public, but do not offer similar protections for drivers. This was expressed by one of our interviewees involved in licencing:
it's a conversation I have with private hire drivers quite a lot … I absolutely understand their problems around the gig economy and stuff. But I'm the licensing authority…. I can't dictate terms and conditions to operators…. The primary thing is [that] they operate a safe business: they operate a business that doesn't put their passengers and the public at risk. And that's what the law tells me I have to do…. Imposing and policing large operators, because that's what it'll mean, about their terms and conditions, is a bit beyond our scope … we might be able to do it, if we increase our licensing fees to cover that sort of cost, but I would rather go around a route of trying to negotiate change with them.
DWPE03, Individual from City Council
We recommend legislative change to require fair treatment of drivers as a condition of operators’ licence, alongside adequate resourcing for local authorities to monitor and enforce these conditions.
The full report and recommendations are available here. We welcome enquiries and discussion about our findings, or proposals for future research.
Tom Vickers is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and convenor of the Work Futures Research Group at NTU.
Based in the Department of Social and Political Sciences and with membership drawn from across the School of Social Sciences at NTU, the Work Futures Research Group examines the social, economic, political, and organisational contexts in which work takes place and connects the study of work to the development of innovative work practices and healthy workplaces.
Nottingham Civic Exchange
Nottingham Civic Exchange has been established by Nottingham Trent University to maximise research, policy and practical impact by bringing together university expertise with partners seeking to address the needs of local communities. Nottingham Civic Exchange acts as a resource to look at social and economic issues in new ways. This means facilitating debate, acting as a bridge between research and policy debates, and developing practical projects at a local, city and regional level.