by Sean Farrell
The GMB union has accused Uber of misleading its drivers by claiming last week’s tribunal decision on working conditions only affects two drivers involved in the case.
In a long-awaited judgment, an employment tribunal agreed with two drivers for the ride-hailing app that Uber’s drivers were not self-employed and should receive the “national living wage”, annual leave and other benefits. Uber has said it will appeal against the judgment.
James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam brought the case on behalf of a group 19 Uber workers who argued they were employed by the San Francisco-based company and not working for themselves. Lawyers said the victory would affect their fellow Uber drivers and have implications for tens of thousands of workers in the so-called gig economy.
But the GMB said Uber sent an email to its 40,000 drivers on Friday, signed by its regional general manager for northern Europe, Jo Bertram, who was criticised by the tribunal judges for using “twisted language” and for being “grimly loyal” to her company.
Bertram’s email to the drivers said: “As you may be aware, earlier this year a small number of London partner-drivers brought a claim to challenge their self-employed status with Uber. Although we have today heard that this challenge has been successful at this first stage, it’s very important to note that today’s decision only affects two individuals and Uber will be appealing it.
“There will be no change to your partnership with Uber in light of this decision and we will continue to support the overwhelming majority of drivers who tell us that they use the Uber app to be their own boss and choose when and where to drive.”
The tribunal judges dismissed Uber’s claim that its London operation was a mosaic of thousands of small businesses linked by a technology platform as “faintly ridiculous”. They said Uber resorted to “fictions, twisted language and even brand new terminology” to portray their drivers as self-employed.
In their judgment, the tribunal judges singled out Bertram for criticism and quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to cast doubt on her testimony.
“Ms Bertram spoke of Uber assisting the drivers to ‘grow’ their businesses, but no driver is in a position to do anything of the kind, unless growing his business simply means spending more hours at the wheel. Reflecting on the case, and on the grimly loyal evidence of Ms Bertram in particular, we cannot help being reminded of Queen Gertrude’s most celebrated line: ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’”
Maria Ludkin, GMB’s legal director, said: “Even after the judge found Ms Bertram’s evidence lacked credibility and described her as ‘grimly loyal’, she continues to try and advance a misleading and false set of facts. The Uber judgment applies to 40,000 UK drivers, not two. Ms Bertram might be wise to think how this judgment reflects on her before she issues any more statements.”
Uber will take the case to the employment appeal tribunal, and following its decision there could be further hearings in the court of appeal and then the supreme court. Any payments due to drivers will not be calculated until that process is over.
Other drivers with the firm will not automatically receive payouts but, if the company accepts the ruling, it will have to change its contracts to avoid more cases being brought by drivers. Lawyers say that Uber’s terms and conditions are similar for all of its UK operatives.
GMB also rejected Uber’s claim that its drivers earned an average £16 an hour and that most wanted to keep the flexibility their current contracts provide.
Ludkin said: “This judgment in no way affects driver flexibility, it merely guarantees them basic employment rights. Uber’s decision to appeal that is purely related to protecting their ample profits and nothing to do with protecting the drivers.”
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