Uber has lost a long running employment tribunal challenge in the UK’s Supreme Court — with the court dismissing the ride-hailing giant’s appeal and reaffirming earlier rulings that drivers who brought the case are workers, not independent contractors.

The case, which dates back to 2016, has major ramifications for Uber’s business model in the UK — and likely regionally, as similar challenges are ongoing in European courts.

European Union lawmakers are also actively eyeing conditions for gig workers, so policymakers were already facing pressure to clarify the law around gig work — today’s ruling only increases that.

The UK Supreme Court judgement can be found here.

Uber has now sent this statement, attributed to Jamie Heywood, its regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe:

We respect the Court’s decision which focussed on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016. Since then we have made some significant changes to our business, guided by drivers every step of the way. These include giving even more control over how they earn and providing new protections like free insurance in case of sickness or injury.  We are committed to doing more and will now consult with every active driver across the UK to understand the changes they want to see.

The court rejected Uber’s argument that it merely acted akin to a booking agent for drivers, noting that the company would have no means of performing its contractual obligations to passengers (nor complying with its regulatory obligations as a licensed private hire vehicle operator) — “without either employees or subcontractors to perform driving services for it”.

The court also weighed how Uber’s business operates in light of UK employment law which provides for a ‘worker’ status — a classification which is neither employed nor self-employed — considering other case law and the detail of the drivers’ relationship with Uber in coming to its interpretation of the legislation.

Its conclusion is that “the transportation service performed by drivers and offered to passengers through the Uber app is very tightly defined and controlled by Uber”.

“Although free to choose when and where they worked, at times when they are working drivers work for and under contracts with Uber (and, specifically, Uber London),” the court wrote, noting its agreement with the earlier tribunal ruling.

In the judgement it has emphasized a number of aspects of that ruling as important — namely: Pay/renumeration (since Uber drivers are not free to set the price of rides); the contractual terms of the performance of the service (again, drivers are not free to set these; Uber does); and Uber’s control over service provision, such as via the use of algorithmic management of logged in drivers and through its ownership of the technology infrastructure. The court also noted how Uber restricts communications between driver and passenger to a minimum.

In a discussion of how Uber uses driver ratings as another tool of control, the court noted that these ratings are never disclosed to passengers (i.e. to help them inform/choose their choice of driver) — but are exclusively for Uber’s use “purely as an internal tool for managing performance and as a basis for making termination decisions where customer feedback shows that drivers are not meeting the performance levels set by Uber”.

“This is a classic form of subordination that is characteristic of employment relationships,” it added.

The court also agreed with the earlier tribunal finding that time spent by the drivers logged into Uber’s app and on duty in London available to accept a trip can be classed as working time under UK law (aka the Working Time Directive and Regulations) — which has implications for fulfilling the National Minimum Wage.

The Supreme Court appears to have had a harder time with the scenario of how to calculate working time if ride-hailing drivers are logged onto multiple such apps simultaneously, with the judge writing: “I have concluded that this question cannot be answered in the abstract.” However in the case of Uber its dominant market share in London has made the question moot for this particular legal challenge.

This story is developing… refresh for updates… 

In recent days — and likely in anticipation of this verdict — Uber has kicked off a lobbying effort in Europe calling for deregulation of platform work.

Uber argues that without a carve out from employment laws platforms’ hands are tied over how far they can go to offer workers a better deal.

It says it’s pushing for some of the same ‘principles’ that featured in the Prop 22 ballot initiative which ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft spend hundreds of millions of dollars pushing in California, going on to win a carve out for delivery and transport work from employment reclassification there last year.

However, responding to Uber’s EU white paper this week, the academic research group, Fairwork, accused it of downplaying its ability to make changes to improve working conditions on its platform.

Instead, it said the tech giant is trying to legitimize a lower level of protection for platform workers than most European workers benefit from — urging lawmakers to focus on expanding and strengthening employment protections, not watering them down.

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