Britain’s gig economy faces biggest test as Uber heads to court


Just months after Uber Technologies Inc. persuaded a London judge to allow it to keep operating in the city, the ride-hailing company is back in court.
At stake this time is an issue that could strike at the core of the UK’s burgeoning gig economy: whether Uber’s drivers are really self-employed.
Two days of hearings kicks off at the Court of Appeal against the backdrop of what one trade union predicted would be the UK’s biggest-ever march of “precarious workers” — from Uber drivers and riders for food-delivery apps such as Deliveroo to outsourced cleaners and restaurant workers.
James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, the Uber drivers spearheading the London case, say they should be classed as the company’s “workers,” meaning they’re entitled to the minimum wage and vacation pay — though they don’t claim to be “employees,” a category that would’ve given them even more rights such as parental leave.
The case could “have a big effect for everybody in the gig economy,” according to James Murray, an employment lawyer at Kingsley Napley in London, who isn’t involved with the case. If Uber has to start treating its drivers as workers, companies with similar models such as Deliveroo may have to do the same, he said.

The lawsuit covers an issue that’s “at the core of the service,” Uber’s Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi told reporters at a briefing last week. “We think we’re in the right here” but “sometimes we’ll have to go to court to preserve our rights.”
“Almost all taxi and private hire drivers have been self-employed for decades, long before our app existed,” Uber spokesman Alex Belardinelli said. He pointed to a study the ride-hailing firm co-authored with Oxford University academics that found drivers want to keep the freedom to choose if, when and where they drive.
Belardinelli said ahead of the hearing that “if drivers were classed as workers they would inevitably lose some of the freedom and flexibility that comes with being their own boss.”
Farrar, who’s now stopped working for Uber, says that’s a “false choice.” Setting up that distinction is “the neatest trick the gig economy has pulled off,” he said. “I don’t accept that trade-off and I don’t think anybody should.”
The case is “incredibly important” because it’s “going to be the case that sets the tone for the gig economy,” said Paul Jennings, an attorney at the London-based law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, which is representing Farrar and Aslam on a pro-bono basis in their fight against the San Francisco-based firm.

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