Uber faces fresh legal challenge from British drivers union

29 Jul 2015

Uber has endured a whole lot of legal issues in its short life, but recent challenges in particular threaten to derail the very foundations on which the ride-hailing app has been built on.

Today (29 July) it was announced that GMB, the union for professional drivers in the UK, is to take legal action against Uber on the grounds that the firm is in breach of a legal duty to provide its drivers with basic rights on pay, holidays, health and safety, and discipline and grievances.

GMB is opposed to Uber’s stance that drivers are ‘partners’ and, therefore, not entitled to rights normally afforded to workers. The San Francisco-based company currently treats its drivers like third-party contractors, ensuring it can operate without the responsibilities that would come with being an employer. But GMB asserts that Uber must ensure that its drivers are paid the minimum wage, receive their statutory entitlement to paid holidays, get rest breaks and work a maximum number of hours per week.

Additionally, the union has pointed to drivers being suspended or deactivated after making complaints about unlawful treatment, without being given any opportunity to challenge the decision.

“Operators like Uber must understand that they have an ethical and social policy that matches societies’ expectations of fair and honest treatment,” said Steve Garelick, branch secretary of GMB professional drivers branch. “For far too long the public have considered drivers as almost ‘ghosts”. They are not seen as educated or with the same needs, aspirations and desires as the rest of the public.”

In a statement released to the BBC, an Uber spokesman said: “One of the main reasons drivers use Uber is because they love being their own boss. As employees, drivers would drive set shifts, earn a fixed hourly wage and lose the ability to drive elsewhere, as well as the personal flexibility they most value.”

A damaging precedent

Uber is becoming hardened when it comes to having its model challenged. In what could prove a damaging precedent for the company, the California Labour Commission last month ruled that drivers are employees in response to a claim brought by San Francisco-based driver Barbara Ann Berwick. Uber is currently appealing an award of about US$4,000 in expenses to Berwick.

In a statement released to Siliconrepublic.com, Uber pointed out that the court’s decision was “contrary to a previous ruling by the same commission, which concluded in 2012 that the driver ‘performed services as an independent contractor, and not as a bona fide employee’. Five other states have also come to the same conclusion. It’s important to remember that the number one reason drivers choose to use Uber is because they have complete flexibility and control.  The majority of them can and do choose to earn their living from multiple sources, including other ride-sharing companies.”

London traffic image via Shutterstock

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic