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Are Uber drivers ‘workers’ or ‘self-employed’?

20 July 2016

This is the question being asked by two drivers in a test case which starts being heard today at the central London employment tribunal.

The taxi drivers claim Uber is acting unlawfully by not paying them holiday and sick pay. They believe themselves to be workers, which under UK employment law makes them entitled to benefits such as holiday pay, sick pay and being paid the national minimum wage. Uber, on the other hand, argues that they are self-employed, and are consequently not entitled to any such rights.

Over the next few days the tribunal will hear the evidence from both sides. It is anticipated that a judgement will be reached in a few weeks’ time.  When making its decision, the tribunal will have to delve into and consider the reality of the relationship between the drivers and Uber, and not just accept at face value the description of the relationship in the written agreements/contracts between the parties. The tribunal will have to establish if the drivers really are self-employed by looking at how much control Uber have over their working day and working practices. For example, they will look at the evidence as to whether the drivers really do have a high degree of flexibility and control over their hours, working as much or as little as they want (as Uber claim they do). In general, the greater control there is, the less likely someone is self-employed. The drivers’ union, GMB, argue it is not about flexibility but the high degree of control Uber exercises over its drivers. They point to Uber deducting sums from their drivers’ pay for customer complaints as an example of this, and accuse them of deliberately trying to flout their duties under UK employment law.

It is reported that there are at least seventeen other cases lodged against the firm, which will be determined by the outcome of today’s case. However, in reality the ruling is likely to lead to large numbers of other drivers coming forward, and could affect thousands of Uber drivers throughout England and Wales.

A case like this hitting the headlines serves as a good prompt to businesses to review their current arrangements with franchisers, contractors and ‘self-employed’ individuals. It is important to ensure that the written record of the relationship genuinely reflects the relationship in practice (for example the management of annual leave arrangements, sickness absence, workload, hours worked, invoicing/payments etc.). When asked to define an individual’s employment status, courts are increasingly disregarding labels and contractual agreements and instead focusing on the practical arrangements of the relationship. To get it wrong can be very costly. The line between being a worker and being self-employed can very often be blurred so it is essential to take legal advice from our team of expert employment lawyers in order to ensure your business would not be vulnerable if a dispute were to occur.

An employment law masters’ graduate with extensive experience in employee relations and negotiations, Helen helps the employment team across areas such as legal research, drafting employment policies and tribunal preparation. She also advises businesses on immigration matters and assists them with securing sponsorship licences. Prior to joining the firm she gained experience in collective consultation and redundancy and restructuring exercises and has also worked as a legal researcher for an employment law barrister.

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Helen Howes LLM
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