Historic Supreme Court Uber ruling will affect wider gig economy, say unions

Brian Farmer, Alan Jones and Sian Harrison, PA
·4-min read

Union bosses say a Supreme Court ruling that Uber drivers should be classed as workers will have “enormous implications” and affect people throughout the gig economy.

Supreme Court justices ruled on the latest round of a long-running fight between Uber operating companies and drivers on Friday.

Uber operating companies, who said drivers were contractors not workers, appealed to the Supreme Court after losing three earlier rounds of the fight.

But judges unanimously dismissed Uber’s appeal.

Lawyers say the ruling means Uber drivers will be entitled to workers’ rights, such as holiday pay.

A law firm, Leigh Day, enlisted by the GMB union to represent Uber drivers says drivers will be entitled to compensation for lost pay.

But union officials said the ruling had implications beyond Uber.

Scottish TUC general secretary Roz Foyer said: “This ruling has enormous implications for employment law which go beyond Uber to the wider gig economy.”

The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed said there was a “glaring need for clarity” – and urged the Government to introduce a statutory definition of self-employment.

“The very fact this case has come to the UK’s Supreme Court shows the UK’s employment law is not working,” said the association’s director of policy, Andy Chamberlain.

“There is a glaring need for clarity in this area, to clear the confusion in the gig economy.

He added: “The gig economy is enormously complex, including many people who are legitimately self-employed and many others who really, based on their working circumstances, should be classed as workers.

Uber drivers Yaseen Aslam (left) and James Farrar (Ian West/PA)
Uber drivers Yaseen Aslam (left) and James Farrar (Ian West/PA)

“It is a patchwork of grey areas between employment and self-employment: the only way to resolve this tangle is to clarify employment status in UK law.”

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “Unions will continue to expose nasty schemes that try and cheat workers out of the minimum wage and holiday pay, but we also need the government to step up to the plate.

“Ministers must use the much-delayed employment bill to reform the law around worker status.

“Everyone should qualify for employment rights unless an employer can prove they are genuinely self-employed.”

A GMB spokesman said officials would now consult with Uber driver members over forthcoming compensation claims.

Mick Rix, GMB national officer, said: “This has been a gruelling four-year legal battle for our members but it’s ended in a historic win.

“The Supreme Court has upheld the decision of three previous courts, backing up what GMB has said all along; Uber drivers are workers and entitled to breaks, holiday pay and minimum wage.

The logo of Uber on a car door (Laura Dale/AP)
The logo of Uber on a car door (Laura Dale/AP)

“Uber must now stop wasting time and money pursuing lost legal causes and do what’s right by the drivers who prop up its empire.”

An employment tribunal ruled in 2016 that Uber drivers were workers, and were entitled to workers’ rights.

That ruling was upheld by an employment appeal tribunal, and by Court of Appeal judges.

Lawyers representing Uber operating companies told Supreme Court justices that the employment tribunal ruling was wrong.

They said drivers did not “undertake to work” for Uber but were “independent, third party contractors”.

But lawyers representing drivers said the tribunal was entitled to conclude that drivers were working.

Justices unanimously ruled against Uber.

“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,” said one justice, Lord Leggatt, in Friday’s ruling.

“The employment tribunal was, in my view, entitled to conclude that, by logging onto the Uber app in London, a claimant driver came within the definition of a ‘worker’ by entering into a contract.

“I think it clear that the employment tribunal was entitled to find that the claimant drivers were ‘workers’.”