In recent years, the business model of the “odd-job economy” – in which workers are classified as independent entrepreneurs and therefore lack basic employment rights – has been put to the test in the whole world.
From Uruguay and the United States to Australia and France, couriers and drivers have taken legal action against food delivery and passenger transport companies, such as Uber, Lyft and Deliveroo, making argue that as “workers” or “employees” they should be entitled to job protections such as minimum wage, paid statutory holidays and the right to organize.
The UK has been one of the main battlegrounds for such cases and things have not gone well for the companies: they have lost virtually all of the high profile workers’ rights cases that have been brought against them. .
And last week they lost again. In a landmark ruling released on February 19, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers fall under the legal category of “worker member (b)”, which entitles them to a job.
The court ruled that “the transport service provided by the drivers and offered to passengers via the Uber app is very narrowly defined and controlled by Uber… [It] is designed and organized in such a way as to provide a standardized service to passengers in which the drivers are perceived to be substantially interchangeable and in which Uber, rather than individual drivers, benefit from the loyalty and goodwill of the customers. “
For anyone who’s ever taken an Uber, this review isn’t shocking. The decision is also not surprising as Uber had already lost three times in a row before the case reached the Supreme Court. However, this decision still has dramatic implications for workers.
Gig economy companies often force the people who work for them to sign very sophisticated contracts designed to give the impression that they are independent contractors rather than employees of the company. When the issue goes to court, companies rely on these contracts to make their case. These contracts are essential to the functioning of the “odd job economy” as they are the primary mechanism by which companies attempt to cover up the otherwise blindly obvious fact that they hire workers and tell them how to do their jobs, but refuse to do so. give them the basics. employment rights and protections.
The Supreme Court addressed this issue in its latest ruling against Uber head-on. In particular, she felt that courts and tribunals should not treat such contracts as the starting point for their analysis, because “an employer is often able to dictate such contractual terms” and “the individual performing the work does not ‘has little or no ability to influence these terms ”.
The effect of the Uber decision is that it will now be even more difficult for employers to use their contracts to misclassify their workers and deny them their basic rights. This means that any attempt by Uber to evade the ruling by changing contracts – as the company has already hinted – will be almost hopeless in court.
With last week’s ruling against Uber, the Supreme Court also underscored its commitment to ensuring that laws passed by parliament – in this case, laws to protect vulnerable workers from exploitative employers – are fully implemented. artwork.
The UK Supreme Court has been strengthening the role of Parliament for some time.
In 2017, the Court ruled that despite the referendum vote on Brexit, then Prime Minister Theresa May could not take the UK out of the European Union without an act of Parliament. Later that year, the court overturned a labor court fee scheme, noting that while people do not have unhindered access to the courts to demand enforcement of laws passed by Parliament, “the democratic election of members of parliament can become an insignificant charade “.
And in 2019, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to shut down Parliament for several weeks, the Supreme Court ruled the decision illegal. Indeed, it is a hypocritical peculiarity of British policy in recent years that despite a Brexit campaign by some – ostensibly – to protect Parliament’s sovereign role, it is the Supreme Court, rather than the ruling Brexiteer government, which has become the institution’s most fervent advocate.
With its latest ruling against Uber, the Supreme Court has sent the message to all UK workers that it will not allow small economy companies to flout the employment rights and protections that have been enshrined in the law by their elected representatives.
The impact of the decision is also expected to be felt beyond the British coast.
For example, some of the workers’ rights that the Supreme Court considered in last week’s ruling originate from European Union (EU) law. In EU law, various employment rights, such as paid holidays, equal pay for men and women and protection against discrimination, apply to “workers”, a legal category which has the same definition in the 27 member states of the bloc. So the fact that Uber drivers were considered ‘workers’ in the UK would likely be convincing to courts across the EU, which will question whether company drivers are entitled to the same rights there. .
Beyond Europe, from India to the United States, the decision has been hailed as a symbolic precedent for regulators and the courts.
Although labor law differs from country to country, Uber’s defense in workers’ rights cases is generally the same: it claims to be a technology company, rather than a transport company, acting as a middleman. between drivers and passengers. The fact that a panel of six judges from the UK’s highest court unanimously rejected this absurd claim is likely to be convincing for courts around the world grappling with the same problem.
In the United States, there are several definitions of the term “employee” in state and federal laws. However, courts often consider the control that a company has over a worker as a key factor in deciding whether or not that worker is entitled to a job. So the UK Supreme Court’s in-depth discussion of how Uber controls its drivers will likely be helpful to drivers pleading their case across the pond.
In Australia, Uber has successfully defended itself against several legal challenges over workers’ rights (although it recently settled the highest profile of them after being scolded by a judge in a federal court). However, Sheryn Omeri, one of the attorneys representing Uber drivers in the UK, who also practices law in Australia, suggests that the UK Supreme Court’s ruling will influence future Australian cases. UK court decisions are “the obvious choice for Australia,” she told me.
It is important to note that when it comes to regulating the “odd job economy”, the judiciary, workers and unions cannot act alone. Governments must force companies to obey the law through lawsuits and fines. Indeed, the UK government has a particularly appalling record on this issue, which makes the role of unions all the more important. But with last week’s decision, the business model of operating the “odd-job economy” received a decisive blow, and for it couriers, drivers and unions around the world should rejoice.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.