Uber’s UK boss and the leader of UK trade union GMB have committed to ending the exploitation of more than 200,000 drivers in their first meeting since signing a collective bargaining agreement – but other unions claim it is simply a public relations stunt.
The ride-hailing app and the union signed a collective bargaining agreement on 26 May 2021, allowing GMB to represent up to 70,000 UK Uber drivers in negotiations with the company on pensions and workplace safety issues. This was the first time Uber has recognized a union of its drivers anywhere in the world.
The agreement followed Uber’s defeat in the UK Supreme Court in February 2021, when the firm was ordered to reclassify its UK drivers as workers, entitling them to better workplace conditions and protections for the first time, including the right to be paid the national minimum wage.
The Supreme Court’s decision was the culmination of multiple attempts by Uber to have the ruling of an October 2016 employment tribunal, which determined that drivers should be treated as workers rather than self-employed individuals, overturned.
In a joint statement published ahead of the meeting, GMB and Uber said that with more than 300,000 drivers working in the ride-hailing and private hire vehicle (PHV) industry, there are still an estimated 230,000 drivers “not receiving their legal rights” from firms such as Bolt and Addison Lee.
“The ground-breaking deal between GMB and Uber was the first step towards a fairer working life for millions of people,” said GMB general secretary Gary Smith. “It showed that standards can be raised across these industries when companies and trade unions work together.
“Earlier this year, the Supreme Court set a precedent for all ride-hailing apps to provide drivers with workers’ rights such as holiday pay and a pension. Uber has done this for its 70,000 drivers, but there are more than 200,000 more working for other operators who are still denied these basic legal rights.”
Smith added: “GMB and Uber today take the next step in our commitment to ending the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of ride-hailing app drivers.”
Jamie Heywood, Uber regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, praised the “historic agreement” between the two, adding: “We hope that working constructively with GMB will show the rest of the industry what can be achieved, ensuring that all drivers, no matter who they work with, receive the rights and protections they are entitled to.”
However, the agreement between Uber and GMB does not allow collective bargaining over drivers’ earnings, including the firm’s implementation of the minimum wage.
Computer Weekly understands that the union will still “consult” on pay, which legally differs from bargaining because it is simply an exchange of opinions between parties rather than formal negotiation.
Uber was contacted about why the agreement does not allow bargaining over earnings but declined to comment.
Responding to Uber and GMB’s joint call for other private hire operators to respect the rights of workers, the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) said its members were “concerned and distressed” by the comments made, pointing out that Uber itself had not respected the Supreme Court ruling by deciding to pay drivers only from the time they are assigned to trips rather than, as the court explicitly ruled, from when they login to the app.
“We are appalled by Uber’s ongoing PR campaign, which deliberately misinforms the public and policy-makers about its true position on workers’ rights,” said ADCU president Yaseen Aslam and general secretary James Farrar in a joint statement, who were the main claimants in the Supreme Court case against Uber. “Uber continues to be in violation of UK employment law, is failing to implement the Supreme Court ruling, and is engaged in ongoing litigation against tens of thousands of drivers representing the majority of its workforce.
“It has started new litigation in the High Court against ADCU and others to undermine the Supreme Court ruling, to avoid £2.5bn in back VAT payments and to cut the link between workers’ rights and its duty to obey all laws as a publicly licensed transport operator. This corporate media campaign is not only offensive to hardworking Uber drivers but, frankly, it is a propaganda campaign corrosive to the public interest.”
DCU added that Uber also continues to “flout data protection law in the UK” by denying thousands of drivers the right to access the personal data used to make decisions about their employment, as well as unfairly dismissing drivers without recourse due to an “unfair and racially biased facial recognition system used in identity checks”.
Computer Weekly asked Uber to respond to ADCU’s comments but had received no response by publication. The International Workers Union of Great Britain’s (IWGB) United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD) branch also took issue with Uber and GMB’s pledge for similar reasons, Tweeting that “first Uber needs to get its own house in order” and respect the Supreme Court ruling.
“After the Supreme Court ruling, Uber has a natural interest to try to level the playing field for itself with other companies in the sector,” it said. “We agree that it is essential that Bolt, Ola, Free Now, and all the rest clean up their acts and respect driver rights.
“That Uber is now trying to lead the charge on this fight shows that it was the right strategy for drivers to take on Uber – the biggest player – first, to then change conditions across the sector.”
Addison Lee chief executive Liam Griffin rejected the claim by Uber and GMB that its drivers were being exploited, telling the BBC that drivers were “at the heart” of its business.
“We guarantee the drivers that work with us get the London Living Wage level of earnings, as opposed to only the National Minimum Wage paid by Uber,” said Griffin. “Drivers working with Addison Lee also get access to a pension and holiday pay.”
Bolt responded by saying that its drivers were “free to choose which platform they use and record numbers are continuing to earn through Bolt”.
It added: “They tell us that’s because they can take home more money. That’s not exploitation; it’s competition. We don’t take business advice from competitors motivated by their own agenda.”
Addison Lee’s Griffin said a decline in driver earnings and wellbeing across the industry was a “product of Uber’s operating practices and predatory pricing model”, which had led to a race to the bottom and threatened drivers’ livelihoods.
Uber responded by saying that its drivers were making “more than ever before driving with Uber, so the claim of a race to the bottom is totally untrue”.