by Arseniy Svynarenko
The UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers weren’t self-employed and must be treated as workers. Uber promises to maintain flexibility of the drivers and give them some new rights and protections. In every country Uber adjust its practices to local legal context, sometimes exploding the grey areas in legislation. It takes a lot of effort for unions and time for governments to fix the regulation and clarify the obligations of platforms, status of platform workers, and their rights.
A milestone for platform economy?
On February 19, 2021, after the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers weren’t self-employed and must be treated as workers by Uber. Right after this ruling Jamie Heywood, Uber’s Regional General Manager for Northern and Eastern Europe commented that, Court’s decision was “focussed on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016”. (BBC, 2021). A month later Uber announced introducing Worker Employment Benefits to all 70,000 self-employed drivers: “You will continue to have total flexibility, meaning you can choose if, when and where you work, while accessing new rights and protections.” (Uber, 2021)
These new rights and protections will include:
- the minimum wage (the National Living Wage) for the working time that starts from accepting a trip on the app to the completion of the trip.
- right to paid holiday (drivers will receive a payment of 12.07% of driver’s earnings)
- Uber will automatically enrol drivers into a pension plan with contributions shared by Uber and a worker.
The new practises adopted by Uber in the UK only partly comply with Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court ruled that Uber should recognize drivers as “workers” from the time they log on to the app, until they log off. Instead, Uber limited the working time to the period between driver accepting a ride till the completion of the ride. This means that time between the rides is not a paid working time. On the other hand, it also means that drivers have kept a freedom to choose to work in short gigs with multiple ride-haling platforms and other jobs as regular taxi drivers elsewhere. Their working time with Uber will not overlap with other jobs. Most likely, the full implementation of the Supreme Court decision in regards the working time would lead to the introduction of fixed work shifts by Uber and hereby further reduce already very limited job flexibility.
It is important to keep in mind that the UK Supreme Court ruling directly pointed out the limited rights of drivers: drivers couldn’t decide the fare, or influence the contract terms, drivers were penalized for rejecting the rides, and the platform would control them through algorithms (ratings, vehicle requirements, photo controls of driver’s identity, documents and vehicle). It is unlikely that Uber will address these issues because the algorithmic control and task allocation is in the core of its technology. And ride-hailing and food delivery platform technology is built on the assumptions that there is a massive supply of cheap and highly flexible labour force, while most of responsibilities for accompanying expenses are shifted to these workers. Labour platforms strive towards monopolisation of markets, reducing the cost of services and expanding of customer base.
As a result, the digital platforms too often treat workers as employees while continuing to refer to them as independent contractors and glamorizing individual urban entrepreneurship. In an interview to BBC4 James Farrar, who together with Yaseen Aslam and the App Drivers & Courier Union, took Uber to an employment tribunal in 2016) said: “These better terms and conditions … will attract many more people on the platform, … we could see flooding of drivers and vehicles on the streets. … A better regulation from the side of the Department of labour is needed.” (BBC 4, 2021)
Indeed, lean platforms such as Uber exploit the gaps in legislation (Srnicek, 2017, Rosenblat, 2018) that allow to minimize platform’s expenses on labour force, shift most of responsibilities to an army of “flexible” workers-partners. The UK’s Supreme Court ruling to classify Uber drivers as workers may bring some benefits to drivers but falls short of resolving probably one of central the problems in the platform work: clarity of workers occupational identity. Furthermore, the response by the Uber to the Supreme Court’s ruling probably aggravated the problem of workers identity. Uber gave drivers access to some of benefits of employment without concluding employment contracts. Uber continues the same practices of algorithmic control and workers-contractors have virtually no influence on fares, contract terms. There is no transparency on how work methods and ratings effect the access to work. The ride-hailing continues to identify drivers as “self-employed for tax purposes” while treating them as employees. Apparently, the UK’s labour law allows to do so. As for workers, their confused occupational identity may result in low job satisfaction and not knowing own rights and obligations.
Uber excluded delivery workers from the new arrangement in the UK and thereby aggravated the inequalities in platform work. The delivery workers remain less protected in the UK and in many other countries.
Occupational identities of taxi drivers and delivery workers in Finland.
Across the globe the numerous court cases and growing public debates about the status of platform workers (also their rights and protections) may indicate the scale of disruption on labour markets. Some Nordic countries could serve as examples of how the national and local regulation can bring more clarity to platform worker’s status.
The labour market and taxi industry are tightly regulated in Finland. Uber adjusted its business model to Finnish regulatory setting as it did in Norway and in many other countries. In Norway Uber operates in a higher segment of limousine car hire (Uber Black) and all drivers are classified as employees working on a limousine company’s cars (Oppegaard, 2021). In Finland Uber drivers usually register as entrepreneurs and typically work with own or leased car. A small fraction of drivers has contracts with Uber Fleet Partners and these partner companies are middlemen between workers and the platform. As licensed taxi drivers in Finland, Uber drivers can work with any platform or as traditional taxi drivers taking customers from taxi stops (although they often get a cold reception from taxi drivers who work only with traditional taxi operators). Their occupational identity is taxi entrepreneurs, the responsibilities are clear for them, and job opportunities are not limited by a ride-hailing platform. At the same time the professional associations of taxi drivers may not be eager to treat equally all taxi entrepreneurs.
The great uncertainty
Not all platform workers are in the same situation. Our research suggests that in contrast to taxi drivers, many delivery workers are uncertain about the character of relation with the platforms. A food delivery platform may have a freelancer contract with a courier, call him/her as a “partner” or “rider”, and yet control the worker if he/she was an employee. Thus, the workers are either confident that the platform is “employer” or confused about own status. In 2020 on the request by the Finnish Occupational Safety and Health authority the Labour Council examined the working conditions of delivery workers and concluded that characteristics of the employment relationship were meat, and the food couriers were employed by the courier companies. Yet in spring 2021, two main food delivery platforms that operate in Finland haven’t made substantial changes in their courier employment practices. Neither trade unions demonstrated any significant influence on how the platforms treat their workers.
In March 2021 in the neighboring Sweden the food delivery platform Foodora (operates also in Finland) has signed a collective agreement with the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union Transportarbetareförbundet. The agreement improves the work conditions of 2000 couriers who use bicycles and scooters (and does not cover those who use cars). These workers will be entailed to fixed hourly pay and yearly salary increase, overwork and weekend bonuses, compensation for clothing, bicycle maintenance, and medicines (Helsingin Sanomat, 2021). It is important to mention that in Sweden the delivery workers of Foodora have employee status. Similar processes take place in other Nordic countries. For instance, the Danish trade union 3F and the employers’ organisation Dansk Erhverv have concluded a national sectoral agreement for Just Eat’s delivery riders (ETF, 2021). Earlier in 2019 the Norwegian Fellesforbundet and Foodora concluded a collective bargaining agreement recognizing the employment relationship between couriers and the food delivery platform (ITF, 2019).
More public discussions are needed.
The expansion of labour platforms to broader spheres of the labour market means that there is a growing significance of trade union representation for platform workers. Labour platforms tend to capitalize on gaps in legislation and uncertainties of occupational identities of workers. In Finland, platform workers are often uncertain if they are entrepreneurs, employees or someone in-between (workers). Trade unions may play an important role developing adequate regulation of platform work, protecting the rights of workers, and reduction of emerging inequalities caused by the variations in the status of workers of different platforms.
The examples of ride-hailing and food delivery platforms often can demonstrate how digital platforms construct the uncertainty of occupational identities of their workers. Therefore, there is a need for continuing a broader public discussion on the status of platform workers, on their rights and protections.
BBC (2021). Uber drivers are workers not self-employed, Supreme Court rules. February 19, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56123668
BBC 4 (2021). Uber driver pay: What it means for the gig economy https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p099z8p4
ETF (2021) 3F secures ground-breaking national sectoral agreement for delivery riders. ETF- European Transport Workers’ Federation
ITF (2019). Union win! Historic agreement for food delivery workers. https://www.itfglobal.org/en/news/union-win-historic-agreement-food-delivery-workers
Helsingin Sanomat (2021). Foodora teki Ruotsissa historiallisen työehtosopimuksen, joka takaa lähetille vajaan 10 euron tuntipalkan – Wolt selvittää toisenlaisia, HS, 25.03.2021 malleja. https://www.hs.fi/talous/art-2000007879557.html
Oppegaard, S. (2020). Regulating Flexibility: Uber’s Platform as a Technological Work Arrangement. Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.18291/njwls.122197
Rosenblat, A. (2018). Uberland. University of California Press.
Srnicek, N. (2017). Platform Capitalism. Polity.
Uber (2021). Worker Employment Benefits. https://help.uber.com/driving-and-delivering/section/worker-employment-benefits