One of the great rhetorical deceits visited upon workers in recent years is the notion of a so called ‘gig economy’ bringing choice, control and freedom to workers thanks to new technology. Big platform operators like Uber and Deliveroo want people to believe they’ve reinvented work and, in so doing, made the law obsolete. They want us to embrace a new deal: to surrender statutory rights such as the minimum wage in return for a promise of ‘flexibility’.
I prefer the term ‘precarious’ to ‘gig’ to describe the sector and the facts on the ground bear me out. Even when using Uber’s own published data for ‘top drivers’, calculations for a 48 hour week show drivers earn little more than £5 per hour and must work 30 hours just to break even.As Uber managers often glibly say, ‘if your wheels ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin!’ What kind of flexibility is this when you need to fulfil distinctly inflexible commitments like paying rent and buying food?
This week, in response to pressure piled on by our union the IWGB, Uber offered trinkets in the form of some incidental insurance cover. For me the gesture is akin to throwing a tooth brush to a drowning man. We welcome the move, but it fails to solve the urgent problem of Uber’s failure to obey our employment laws and respect worker rights.
But don’t for a minute think the rest of the industry has ever been any better – it’s been a cess pit of labour abuse for decades. As far back as 2002, the minicab boss’ lobby railed against Transport for London proposals for driver training saying it would lead to ‘over qualified drivers and increased costs to the travelling public’. They asked in anguish ‘how can a company invest valuable resources in a self-employed individual?’
Most minicab firms insist drivers are self-employed, yet the firms retain control over fares, the customer relationship and the driver’s work. Fortunately, the law provides some protection for vulnerable workers caught in the twilight zone between employment and self-employment. The so-called ‘limb-b worker status’ generally applies to self-employed workers who are not in business on their own account and entitles them to the minimum wage and holiday pay.
‘Worker status’ is the basis of our successful claim against Uber and recently, our union expanded the campaign to bring claims against three more minicab operators including Green Tomato Cars in London, A2B Radio Cars in Birmingham and the luxury chauffeur service app, Blacklane.
Green Tomato cars claims to be ‘an ethically driven company’, yet our member was paid just one day out of a five-day contract after illegal deductions were made and was required to work 12 hour shifts without a break.
A2B Radio Cars boasts of being ‘Birmingham and Solihull’s largest taxi company’ yet the firm regularly paid our member below the national minimum wage. A2B Radio Car’s sister company in Swindon recently summarily dismissed striking drivers who took action in protest over V Cars’ faulty app which overcharged its own customers!
Blacklane promises ‘a work environment where you can feel inspired and challenged’ but our member experienced only bullying. He had illegal deductions of his wages to the tune of £240 and was suspended without pay for two weeks because an Uber insignia was somehow visible in his vehicle.
But even as we take these cases forward we know this is just the tip of the iceberg with up to 250,000 minicab drivers UK wide denied their rights. Sadly, he government’s review of employment law for the gig economy is likely to only make things worse with Matthew Taylor proposing a measure which would weaken the right of precarious workers to earn the minimum wage.
Last year, the then Transport Minister John Hayes MP announced a separate review into rampant abuse of labour in the minicab industry before later watering down the terms of reference, granting extensive representation on the review panel to the minicab boss’ lobby while excluding our union, the largest in the UK for minicab drivers. But this is nothing new for us, TfL refuses to allow any dedicated stakeholder trade union representation for 117,000 mostly BAME minicab drivers yet affords 23,000 London cabbies recognition for 6 separate representative bodies.
Lat year, in the wake of Frank Field’s damning report, Sweated Labour: Uber and the gig economy, the Greater London Assembly passed a resolution to make worker rights a condition of licensing for minicab operators. But TfL and the Mayor have still failed to act to eradicate sweatshop conditions from an industry they license and regulate.
This week the Mayor released a statement welcoming Uber’s offer of additional benefits saying he hoped ‘it becomes the norm across the gig economy’. We think full compliance with the law, respect for statutory worker rights and a living wage is a better aspiration for precarious workers. That’s exactly what we’ll keep on fighting for.
James Farrar is Chair of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the IWGB Union and co-lead claimant in Aslam & Farrar v Uber.