It’s official: I’m a worker!

Photo by Daniel Monteiro on Unsplash

Almost two years ago, I mentioned the English Court of Appeal’s decision in Uber BV & Ors v Aslam & Ors [2018] EWCA Civ 2748 on appeal from UKEAT/0056/17/DA), where individuals working as taxi drivers for Uber were to be classified as workers not self-employed individuals.

This decision was a significant defeat for Uber, but it was hardly going to be the last word in the story and so it proved. An appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court was always going to be on the cards and, on Friday 19 February, the Justices issued their judgement (see Uber BV & Ors v Aslam & Ors [2021] UKSC 5).

The Supreme Court was asked to consider two questions by Uber:

  1. Whether the drivers (the Respondents) were “workers” providing personal services to the Second Appellant.
  2. If the Respondents were “workers”, what periods constituted their “working time”.

The result? Uber drivers are workers not self-employed individuals. Essentially, the Supreme Court has approved the earlier decision of the English Court of Appeal.

Although Uber drivers won’t acquire full employment status, this decision is, nonetheless, highly significant. It will, for example, mean that Uber drivers will be protected under the National Minimum Wage legislation and the Working Time Regulations.

Paragraphs 94 to 102 of the Supreme Court’s decision are really instructive. The Court found the following matters extremely significant:

  • The rates of pay for taxi drivers was set solely by Uber
  • The contractual terms were dictated solely by Uber
  • Uber constrained or restricted the ability of drivers to decline jobs
  • Uber strictly vetted the type of vehicle which drivers could use for jobs and the technology used by drivers was “wholly owned” by Uber
  • The communication between a driver and a passenger was severely restricted by Uber in order “to prevent drivers from establishing any relationship with a passenger capable of extending beyond an individual ride.”

As Lord Leggatt (who delivered the unanimous judgement of the Court) stated at paragraph 102:

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. Furthermore, it is designed and organised in such a way as to provide a standardised service to passengers in which drivers are perceived as substantially interchangeable and from which Uber, rather than individual drivers, obtains the benefit of customer loyalty and goodwill. From the drivers’ point of view, the same factors – in particular, the inability to offer a distinctive service or to set their own prices and Uber’s control over all aspects of their interaction with passengers – mean that they have little or no ability to improve their economic position through professional or entrepreneurial skill. In practice the only way in which they can increase their earnings is by working longer hours while constantly meeting Uber’s measures of performance.

A link to the judgement can be found below:

https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2019-0029-judgment.pdf

Workers or independent contractors?

Worker is a term which is widely used in EU equality and employment law, but a single definition does not exist. As a result of the U.K.‘s long relationship with the EU, the term has entered the British legal systems and, in the interim period, Brexit will not change this fact.

In Allonby v Accrington and Rossendale College (Case C-256/01) [2004] ICR 1328; [2004] ECR I-873 the Court of Justice made the following observation:

“… there must be considered as a worker a person who, for a certain period of time, performs services for and under the direction of another person in return for which he receives remuneration …”

In Syndicatul Familia Constanta v Directia Generala de Asistenta Sociala si Protectia Copilului Constanta (Case C-147/17) EU:C:2018:926; [2019] ICR 211, the was strongly of the opinion that the relationship between employer and worker was of a “hierarchical” nature. This was a view echoed by Lord Clarke in the Supreme Court’s decision of Hashwani v Jivraj [2011] UKSC 40; [2011] 1 WLR 1872 where he identified the relationship as one of “subordination” in favour of the person receiving the services.

That said, Baroness Hale in a later Supreme Court decision – Clyde and Co LLP and Anor v Bates van Winkelhof [2014] UKSC 32 – stated that “while subordination may sometimes be an aid to distinguishing workers from other self-employed people, it is not a freestanding and universal characteristic of being a worker”. This remark was quoted with approval by Lord Leggatt in the Uber decision at paragraph 74 of his judgement.

In other words, such a feature is merely to be deployed as one of the many possible tests that can be used by the courts to analyse a relationship between two parties.

The Employment Rights Act 1996

Section 230(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 contains the definition of who precisely is an employee i.e. someone who has a contract of service. If you don’t have this type of contractual arrangement (you’re not an employee), you may well be working under a contract for services. This is one of the most important distinctions in employment law in the United Kingdom.

Section 230(3) of the Act also defines in law an individual who is a ‘worker’. This can include someone who provides services under an employment contract – and, crucially, some individuals who fall into the self-employed category.

Conclusion

Individuals working under a contract for services – precisely because of their lack of employment status – are often denied access to the sorts of legal rights which employees routinely take for granted e.g. unfair dismissal protection, redundancy protection, family friendly rights.

There are notable exceptions (aren’t there always?): high earning British television celebrities (e.g. Lorraine Kelly) or a number of BBC news journalists have preferred to be treated as freelancers or self-employed persons. Why? They can then minimise their exposure to income tax liability in a way (often via the medium of personal service companies) that would not be possible because if they were employees they would almost certainly be taxed at source on a PAYE (pay as you earn) basis. 

We have seen an explosion in the type of work that is often characterised or labelled as the ‘gig economy’. This work is often characterised by a distinct lack of employment rights; irregular working patterns; chronic insecurity; lack of long term career progression; and low pay. It is often impossible for such individuals to complete the necessary periods continuous service to acquire employment rights. 

Companies such as Deliveroo, Lyft and Uber have become synonymous with the ‘gig economy’, as have whole sectors of the employment

There’s now a growing awareness on both the part of the UK Government (The Taylor Review) and the European Union (the forthcoming EU Directive on Transparent and predictable working conditions) that people on contracts for services deserve greater levels of work-place protection.

It’s not just in the UK that debates about employment status are currently playing out. At the tail end of 2019, it was with particular interest that, in 2019/20, I was following a story from the United States which highlighted many of the issues which I have just been discussing in this Blog.

The US State of California enacted a law, Assembly Bill 5 2019 or AB5 (known more popularly as the gig economy law) giving those individuals working in the gig economy more employment rights. The law came into force on 1 January 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the lack of employment protection for workers and the self-employed. Only last March, I was writing about the fact that the U.K. Government’s reforms to Statutory Sick Pay would would not include approximately 2 million individuals – a situation that Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC was quick to highlight.

Related Blog articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/25/strippers-are-workers-too-discuss/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/13/california-dreamin/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/05/state-of-emergency/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/04/sick-pay-or-the-coronavirus-conundrum/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/19/the-gig-economy/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/07/22/good-work/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/22/hello-im-lorraine-and-im-definitely-self-employed/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/21/employee-or-not/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/01/17/employment-status/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/08/call-me-an-uber/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/25/strippers-are-workers-too-discuss/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/14/horses-for-courses-the-equine-flu-

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 21 February 2021