The decision that Uber drivers are in fact workers, not entrepreneurs working for themselves, could not have come at a better time.
Weakened by the closure of businesses all over the world because of the Covid-19 pandemic, workers are much more vulnerable to exploitation.
The UK Uber drivers’ struggle to be recognised by the company as its employees began five years ago, when they won their first attempt to establish themselves as workers rather than self-employed.
Uber then appealed, and last week the last stage of this process ended with the UK Supreme Court finding in favour of the drivers.
The arguments of the court in favour of this decision were that Uber set the fare, the contract terms and could monitor and penalise drivers if they rejected too many trip requests.
Uber handles passenger complaints, not the drivers, and the company decides whether the passenger will get a refund, which can, occasionally, be deducted from the payment to the driver.
“Taking these factors together, it can be seen that the transportation service performed by drivers and offered to passengers through the Uber app is very tightly defined and controlled by Uber,” the Supreme Court’s ruling said.
Because of these factors, the court decided that the drivers were in a position of subordination to Uber, therefore they are the company’s employees.
This is the latest example, and one of the most prominent, of a shift towards better conditions for so-called “gig workers” everywhere in the West.
In December, the German Federal Labour court ruled in favour of a “gig worker” who has sued an online platform to be recognised as an employee.
The reasoning in the case, which the worker brought with the help of the IG Metall union, was similar to that of the UK’s Supreme Court.
The judges said the platform’s incentive system meant that the platform had indirect control and the worker was not free to organise his own time and place of work, or the way he carried it out.
The platform’s evaluation system determined the worker’s access to orders, and this influenced his hourly wage.
This, combined with the detailed task descriptions and fixed time allocated to completing them, created an employment relationship, according to the ruling.
Other cases like these could follow. The justice system is doing what the politicians have shied away from: improving the working conditions of millions of “gig workers”.
This is particularly important at a time when jobs are scarce and big companies have the luxury of being picky about their workforce.
Also last week, the media in the UK reported how Amazon, the Covid-19 pandemic’s big winner, was still treating workers in some of its warehouses poorly, with in effect zero-hour contracts, despite the massive amounts of money the company has been raking in.
The “disruptors'” model of relying on cheap labour to complement their technological edge in order to bring in the profits is beginning to be seriously challenged. This can only be a good thing.