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Drivers takes Uber to employment tribunal over workers' rights

Published 20/07/2016

Uber claims it is a technology company rather than a taxi firm
Uber claims it is a technology company rather than a taxi firm

Drivers have taken taxi app company Uber to court over claims that it does not provide them with basic workers' rights.

The firm, which employs around 30,000 drivers in London and more in cities across the UK and internationally, designates its drivers as self-employed rather than employed workers.

Uber claims it is a technology company rather than a taxi firm, and allows people to be their own boss and work flexibly, but it faces a legal challenge from drivers who say it is acting unlawfully.

It is the first time Uber has faced legal action in the UK over whether its drivers are workers or self-employed.

Two test cases, brought by drivers James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam at Central London Employment Tribunal and supported by the GMB union, argue they should be entitled to holiday pay and receive at least the national minimum wage.

Lawyers for drivers claim Uber acts unlawfully by deducting sums from their pay, often without telling them in advance, including when customers make complaints.

Mr Farrar, from Bordon in Hampshire, told the tribunal there was "tremendous pressure" to meet Uber's demands and drivers were forced to choose between safety and doing the job.

He also claimed he had been paid around £5 an hour for some work, far below the minimum wage and what Uber said it paid him.

Mr Farrar dismissed suggestions that Uber is a customer of drivers who run their own businesses, saying it "in no way reflects the reality".

He joined Uber in December 2014, almost a year after being made redundant from a job in the technology industry, and works in London and the Home Counties in the evenings and at nights while pursuing his own interests in the days.

Mr Farrar said: "Working for Uber is my job. I do not run a private hire business - I do not have a service company. I do not advertise 'driving services', I have no-one working for me, I have only one car licensed with TfL for private hire work and I only drive for Uber."

He added: "I understand that Uber is arguing that I run my own business and that Uber is a customer of that business, but this in no way reflects the daily reality of my job."

Mr Farrar said he provides a service for Uber by driving for the company and carrying out work for it, adding: "I am not sure what service Uber provides to me."

Working for Uber is a job, not a business, he said, adding: "I feel that I am free to generate my income but I don't feel that I have the control to target profit."

In his witness statement, Mr Farrar said drivers receive 80% of fares paid by passengers to Uber, with the rest going to the company as "commission".

Mr Farrar said: "In reality they pay me for the work I have done and keep 20% of what they have charged the customer.

"Uber sets the rate of this 'commission' and I have no ability to negotiate a different deal - I either have to accept Uber's term or not work as an Uber driver."

In his statement he said Uber claimed it had paid him £13.77 an hour on average for the hours he has logged in the app.

But he said his earnings for August last year after expenses came to just £5.03 an hour - below what was then the national minimum wage of £6.70 for those over 21.

He said: "There are times when things have been tight and I have had to work many more hours than perhaps I should have done.

"This time last year I did 91 hours in a week. Is that a choice? I am not sure. I felt I had to do that at that time to survive."

David Reade QC, representing Uber, argued drivers have a choice about their work, there is nothing to force them to work exclusively for Uber, and they are free to work with other private hire operators.

But Mr Farrar said that while the "broad proposition" is true and he is free to control when he logs into his Uber account, the "mechanics" of the situation make working elsewhere impossible.

He said Uber controls him "very, very carefully", logging him out of its system if he ignores two bookings - which Mr Reade said only happens if a driver dismisses three consecutive jobs - and puts him in a "penalty box" for 10 minutes, also sending him warnings if he does not take jobs, all of which he said would make doing extra work for another company unrealistic.

Mr Farrar said he had been physically assaulted twice, racially abused once and verbally attacked many times while working as an Uber driver, which led him to trust his instincts and be "very, very careful" about deciding whether to take jobs.

But he said that even if drivers cancel jobs over safety fears they are penalised.

He told the tribunal: "Sometimes you have to choose between your own safety, your own life sometimes, and doing this job.

"I am not a machine. I wish I could do more and earn more, but I can't do that."

He added: "What Uber managers want doesn't necessarily deliver a good deal for drivers."

Uber, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands, has previously argued that UK drivers should not be allowed to enforce UK employment rights in UK courts, and should only seek arbitration in the Dutch courts.

The firm said Mr Farrar's actual work equated to an average of 38.5 hours a week - and during the period he claimed to have been paid below minimum wage, he chose to take just 13% of the trips offered to him.

Uber said its drivers can make on average £16 an hour after the company has taken its fee.

Jo Bertram, Uber UK's regional general manager, said: "More than 30,000 people in London drive with our app and this case only involves a very small number.

"The main reason people choose to partner with Uber is so they can become their own boss, pick their own hours and work completely flexibly.

"Many partner-drivers have left other lines of work and chosen to partner with Uber for this very reason.

"In fact two thirds of new partner-drivers joining the Uber platform have been referred by another partner."

Stephen Garelick, branch secretary of the professional drivers section of the GMB union - which is supporting the two men, said drivers' rights were being compromised globally and in other private hire firms.

He said: "This comes across other trades and industries as well, and part of what happens today and over the next few days will hopefully make a big difference to those in a similar situation throughout the United Kingdom."

The case continues on Thursday, when Ms Bertram will give evidence.

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