The ride-hailing company Uber operates an agency business similar to systems used by traditional minicab firms, a London employment appeals tribunal has been told.
Opening the company’s appeal against a ruling that its drivers should be treated as workers, lawyers for Uber argued that the US-owned firm was not introducing new employment practices.
Dinah Rose QC, for Uber, said: “The services of minicab firms are closely analogous to the services offered by Uber BV.
“The agency model has been operated for many years. It’s in no way novel. It’s been recognised by case law.”
The claim that drivers should be entitled to worker status – rather than being treated as self-employed – was originally brought by two Uber drivers, James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam.
Workers receive paid annual leave, the national minimum wage and rest breaks.
The decision last week by Transport for London not to renew Uber’s licence is not expected to affect the legal arguments in this case.
Addressing a protest against the gig economy before the hearing, Aslam said: “In the case of Uber, drivers are stuck into working due to desperation, either by costly finance, insurance, licence fees and the list goes on.
“All Uber want to do is flood the market with drivers, with no responsibility or liability – keep reducing fares to attract more customers, while drivers carry all the risks,” Aslam said.
“These drivers are hardworking people and in their job face many struggles. Drivers sleeping in their cars, drivers working 80-90 hours a week and still not making the minimum wage.”
Rachel Mathieson, a solicitor with Bates Wells Braithwaite which is representing the drivers, said: “People misinterpret this case as creating something new. This is applying the established law to new business practices.”
A spokesperson for Uber said: “Almost all taxi and private hire drivers have been self-employed for decades before our app existed. With Uber, drivers have more control and are totally free to choose if, when and where they drive with no shifts or minimum hours. The overwhelming majority of drivers say they want to keep the freedom of being their own boss.”
Rose said the practice of running an agency for self-employed drivers was legally identical to traditional practices. “It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s 100 drivers for a minicab firm or 40,000 on an app like Uber.
“It’s just that advances in technology make large scale business operations possible … An individual private car hire driver is running a business on their own account. In all of these [other precedent cases], it’s never disputed that a minicab firm is operating as an agent for the driver.
“Any private car hire driver who wants to work in London has to do it through the agency of a minicab company. Drivers are prohibited from plying for hire or picking up customers from taxi ranks.”
The hearing at the central London employment appeal tribunal is scheduled to last two days. The decision may be reserved.
In a skeleton argument submitted to the tribunal, lawyers for Farrar and Asleen disputed Uber’s claim that it acts as an agent in the interest of the drivers.
“The insuperable difficulty faced by Uber in this appeal is that it cannot point to any document in, or by which [the drivers] expressly appoint and authorise Uber … to act as their agent, other than for the limited purpose of collecting payment,” barristers Jason Galbraith-Marten QC and Sheryn Omeri argue.
“When allocating bookings, Uber deliberately does not tell the driver the destination and strongly discourages drivers from asking passengers the destination before pick up – so that drivers are not able to decline a booking because they do not wish to travel to that destination.”
A protest march by “precarious workers’ organised by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain coincided with the start of the hearing. It included Uber drivers, Deliveroo riders, workers from the Picturehouse cinema, British Airways mixed fleet, casualised university staff and other outsourced workers.
A separate claim by a woman Uber driver in London at an employment tribunal alleges that the practices of the San Francisco-based company unfairly disadvantage women. The claim is being brought by GMB, who are represented by law firm Leigh Day, on behalf of the anonymous female Uber drive.
She claims that the way the company asks her to operate puts her and other women at risk because drivers do not know their passenger’s destination until the passenger is already in the car. If that passenger’s journey is to a remote or unsafe area, the driver then has no option but to cancel the journey and face a passenger complaint leading to low ratings for future work, it is alleged.