Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, the two lead claimants in the successful tribunal that fought Uber for employee rights in the UK, say the company is continuing to flout the law. After it lost a final appeal with the UK’s Supreme Court in February, Uber announced yesterday it would give its 70,000 drivers minimum wage, holiday pay, and pensions. But Aslam and Farrar say the details of Uber’s new policy mean it’s still short-changing workers.
The issue is that Uber has only committed to paying drivers at least minimum wage for the time “after accepting a trip request.” This, says Aslam and Farrar, contradicts the Supreme Court ruling, which found that working time for Uber drivers included any period when individuals were logged in to the company’s app and waiting in the right area for fares.
As the justice of the Supreme Court, Lord Leggatt, stated in a summary of the ruling: “The judgement also upholds the finding of the employment tribunal that for the purposes of the legislation, the claimants’ working time was not limited, as Uber had argued, to periods when they were actually driving passengers to their destinations. It also included any period when the driver was logged into the Uber app in the relevant territory and was ready and willing to accept trips.”
Speaking to The Verge, Aslam said the language in the Supreme Court ruling was clear, and Uber’s response showed it would continue to try to bend the law to its advantage. “It’s just a cheap PR trick,” he said of the decision. “If I’m working 10 hours, but only have passengers on board for three hours, I’m only getting paid for those three hours.”
Farrar added: “The Supreme Court was asked to decide two things: if we are workers and when we are workers. These were the decisions it had to make and Uber is in clear violation of them. We can’t accept it and we won’t accept it.”
In a response to questions from The Verge about this issue, a spokesperson for Uber said in a statement: “If drivers were entitled to the minimum wage for all the time they simply had the app open, this would result in set shifts and a drastic cut to the number of drivers who can earn with Uber, at a time when the UK needs more earnings opportunities not less.” The spokesperson claim drivers do not want this and says their new policy is “consistent with the Supreme Court ruling.”
It’s not clear how much time Uber drivers spend on average waiting for fares, and thus how much potential income has been lost through the company’s new policy. Farrar and Aslam say that drivers will lose out on 40 to 50 percent of a possible wage increase. A 2019 study by the University of California, Berkeley, found that US Uber and Lyft drivers spent roughly a third of their working day logged in to the app and waiting for fares.
Aslam said Uber’s new policy is crafted to ensure it won’t lose a key advantage versus traditional taxi firms: creating an abundance of drivers who respond quickly to customers without paying for their downtime. “It costs Uber next to nothing to operate in cities,” says Aslam. “All the liabilities — the running costs and expenses of maintaining a vehicle — are shifted over to the driver. So the more drivers they have on the platform, the better it is for them: it doesn’t cost them anything but creates more availability for customers.”
If Uber had to pay drivers for time spent waiting for requests from passengers, it would lose this advantage. It’s for reasons such as this that critics of the company say it doesn’t offer any significant technological innovations at all. It simply extracts extra value from workers by exploiting loopholes in countries’ legal systems.
What’s not clear is what happens next from a legal perspective. Aslam says it’s up to the UK government to enforce the Supreme Court ruling, but he also says London’s transport regulator, Transport for London (TfL), should take responsibility. “TfL has the power to protect workers but they don’t want to get involved,” he says. Farrar added: “It should have been government enforcing this all the way back to the original case, rather than expecting precarious workers to bring complicated litigation all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Paul Jennings, a partner at the London law firm Bates Wells, who represented Aslam and Farrar in their original employment tribunal, said that the discrepancy between Uber’s new policies and the Supreme Court ruling was clear and that the government should act.
“The idea that drivers are only working when they have a passenger in the car is not consistent with the judgement,” Jennings told The Verge. “It’s regrettable that Uber hasn’t done the right thing entirely.” He added compliance could be enforced without additional litigation, but that the latter might be necessary to “reinforce the judgement.”
Overall, Aslam and Farrar say they are pleased that Uber has been forced to change its policies but are disappointed their fight is not yet over. “We suffered financially and mentally. But we’re not delighted. What we’re getting is a bone chucked at us,” says Aslam. “It’s never going to stop, we know that. This is Uber.”
Farrar added that despite the time and resources they’d committed already, the pair was happy to keep on fighting: “Me and Yaseen, we latch on and we don’t let go.”
Update Wednesday March 17th, 11:58AM ET: Updated story with statement from Uber regarding “working time.”