Legal action doesn't get the goods

Anti-Uber protest photographed by David Holt

The recent employment tribunal ruling against Uber is not the end of the 'gig-economy' and might not change anything

One in seven workers in the UK today is self-employed. Self-employed workers earn less than other workers. Pay for self-employed workers fell nearly a fifth during the financial crisis. Many of these workers are actually working for themselves, but a significant amount are working for employers who use self-employment to avoid giving workers the pay and conditions full time employees are guaranteed under the law.

This is why today's ruling against Uber is being welcomed by many on the left. The trade union GMB bought a case on behalf of two Uber drivers against the company at an employment tribunal. The tribunal found Uber has acted unlawfully by not providing drivers with basic workers’ rights. This could lead to Uber drivers getting basic workers' rights but it might not and shouldn't been seen as a victory.

All that has happened is a tribunal has found Uber drivers at the moment are effectively employees and not self-employed. This means Uber will have to pay the two drivers who bought the case money for the period they were working and not getting the rights they would have done if they were employees. But Uber will appeal this and may not end up having to change anything at all.

If Uber exhausts it's appeals and can't overturn the ruling then it has two choices. It either takes on its drivers as employees giving them the wages and conditions they should be getting. Or Uber can change the way it operates so its workers are legally self-employed. Given Uber's global business model is based on it not employing drivers, it looks likely it will change the way it operates to meet the law.

One of the reasons the left is so excited about the outcome of this tribunal is because people think it will bring about the end of the 'gig-economy'. The idea being companies across the country who use bogus self-employment will now all be forced to end the practice. Hundreds of thousands of workers could now get the minimum wage and have access to paid holidays and sick pay. But that doesn't look very likely.

The law provides a framework within which capitalist firms have to operate, this framework cares more about profit than workers' rights. Companies across the UK are going to be working out ways of changing the way they operate so they fit within that framework. Every firm which can see a way of making sure its workers are legally self-employed will take it if it costs less than making the workers regular employees.

No doubt some workers somewhere will benefit from this ruling, but this is unlikely to be the cause for widespread change. When the Deliveroo strike was taking place people told me this tribunal case could be more significant than the strike action. They were wrong. Legal action can compel companies to change the way they operate but it cannot guarantee improvements in working conditions. The best way of doing that is workers organising collectively and taking direct action to force companies like Uber to respect our basic rights.

If the class struggle is fought through the legal system, workers are fighting without our most effective weapon, our ability to stop work. Fighting and winning legal cases is good for left-wing legal firms but it does nothing to build up working class power. Plus the legal system can be changed by politicians. With a government in power which is keen to attack working conditions don't be surprised if the law gets changed because of this ruling to legalise the way companies like Uber operate.

Comments

Steven.
Oct 29 2016 18:49

Yeah, good blog. I have seen a few anarchists making a big deal over this, but really it's not.

There are these sorts of cases all the time, where small numbers of workers take employers to court and get their bogus self-employment status overturned. But that doesn't stop the bogus self-employment happening, as there are no repercussions on the employer for breaking the law other than for the individuals who bring the lawsuit they have to retrospectively obey it going back a short period and obey it for those individuals in future.

The reality is that huge numbers of employers do this for huge numbers of workers, and a couple of people winning a case doesn't stop them from doing it.

ajjohnstone
Oct 31 2016 14:13

Uber has told its drivers a landmark ruling which entitles workers to employment rights only affects the two employees that brought the action.

http://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/uber-tells-drivers-tribunal-ruling-on-workers-rights-doesnt-apply-to-them-a3382686.html

Quote:
"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."
Steven.
Oct 31 2016 14:20
ajjohnstone wrote:
Uber has told its drivers a landmark ruling which entitles workers to employment rights only affects the two employees that brought the action.

yep, that's right, and that is how employment law works.

That said, there will now be lots of money to be made for lawyers, and possibly unions, targeting Uber drivers to raise individual or collective claims for back holiday pay and possibly some backpay if effective pay ever dipped below the national minimum wage

Jim
Oct 31 2016 16:13
Steven. wrote:
That said, there will now be lots of money to be made for lawyers, and possibly unions, targeting Uber drivers to raise individual or collective claims for back holiday pay and possibly some backpay if effective pay ever dipped below the national minimum wage

If drivers do make these claims are Uber able to stop giving them work? I've done freelance work in the past and am aware of people who've got employers to meet legal standards for retrospective work being denied any future work. It wouldn't surprise me if Uber did something similar.

Steven.
Oct 31 2016 16:36
Jim wrote:
If drivers do make these claims are Uber able to stop giving them work? I've done freelance work in the past and am aware of people who've got employers to meet legal standards for retrospective work being denied any future work. It wouldn't surprise me if Uber did something similar.

I haven't seen the full details of the legal ruling, also I'm not 100% sure of everything with regard to this area of employment law (employment law in general is also mostly pretty vague). However it looks to me like the tribunal determined they were "workers", rather than employees. This does give them some basic employment rights, like holiday pay and the minimum wage, however they have no rights against unfair dismissal.

They do have the protection from "detriment" for raising a claim about non-payment of the national minimum wage, but while "employees" are protected from unfair dismissal for challenging an employer who is denying them a statutory right (like holiday pay), workers are not. So I would have thought at least on the minimum wage front there would be protection.

But of course Uber are challenging the tribunal outcome. And in any case tribunals don't set legal precedent, only at the level of Employment Appeal Tribunal or above is legal precedent set, so at the moment the only Uber drivers who technically have "workers' rights" are those two who brought the case.

So if others did, Uber could sack them, and they would have to try to take the company to court and prove that they were workers all over again, before even demonstrating any detriment. This would be pretty long winded and expensive…

gulliver
Nov 3 2016 03:04

I like the point of this post, working within the legal system, following the rules, does not get the goods. Reminds me of this IWW one pager (http://libcom.org/library/concessions-how-beat-them).
Indeed, the law is on the side of the owners. The law will continue to change to favor them because they have the authority in the form of goods aka money-power (substantive material). Just like the German socialist democrats sold the labor unionists, anarchists, and communists down the river in the revolution of 1918?, without deeper and broader working class solidarity, this case seems to stink of the same futility--limousine liberals, social democrats exercising concentrated power to win a court case. Just some thoughts... *Peace*

ajjohnstone
Nov 3 2016 12:00

I know the title of the article is aimed at workers struggle but can we say the same about constitutional matters and Brexit.

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-37857785