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.