Uber recognises union for first time

Questions remain over whether working time means drivers have to be logged into the app
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Uber has agreed to recognise a trade union for the first time, announcing that the GMB will have the power to represent its UK drivers in pay discussions and negotiations on terms of work.

Unions have criticised the ride-hailing company for years for failing to recognise drivers as workers and to provide them with the associated employment rights and protections.

Its treatment of drivers has been the subject of a series of court cases. In February, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that drivers should be classed as workers rather than self-employed, and granted rights such as paid holiday, rest breaks and the national minimum wage.

The GMB said that formal recognition would give an “even stronger voice” to around 70,000 Uber drivers and called the deal “groundbreaking”.

Under the agreement, the union and Uber will work together to ensure drivers receive the national living wage, have access to discretionary benefits such as health insurance, and that issues over personal safety while driving are addressed.

The GMB said it would also represent drivers who lose access to the app, and would set up hubs where drivers can speak to union representatives to discuss any concerns.

In March, Uber agreed to pay all drivers of eligible age at least the national living wage of £8.91 an hour, holiday pay and a pension plan, but some unions accused the company of still exploiting workers because the wage guarantee only applied when they were logged into the app.

Uber and GMB said they would work together to improve the pay and conditions of platform workers such as couriers, food delivery drivers and workers for other taxi apps.

Steve Garelick, GMB London region organiser said he was “extremely proud” to have struck up the landmark deal. “The future of such agreements should now be embraced by other app companies beyond private hire and taxi as well as those who provide similar facilities not just in the UK,” he said.

“I believe this agreement will create the fundamental steps towards a new understanding of worker protections and the need for strong ethics in the future.”

Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for northern and eastern Europe, said: “Whilst Uber and GMB may not seem like obvious allies, we’ve always agreed that drivers must come first, and today we have struck this important deal to improve workers’ protections.

“Uber is the only major player in the industry to provide drivers with a national living wage guarantee, holiday pay and a pension, and this historic agreement means that Uber will be the first in the industry to ensure that its drivers also have full union representation.”

Reason for caution

The App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) said that Uber’s recognition of GMB was a “welcome development” but added that there is good reason for workers to remain cautious.

In a joint statement, James Farrar, general secretary and Yaseen Aslam, ADCU’s president, said: “At this time ADCU is not prepared to enter into a recognition agreement with Uber. This is because Uber continues to violate basic employment law such as the right to minimum wage and holiday for all working time despite the recent UK Supreme Court ruling found in our favour.”

Farrar and Aslam were the lead claimants in the case that eventually reached the Supreme Court and ruled that Uber drivers were workers.

The pair added: “Recently, Uber applied for declaratory relief from the High Court that its business model was not in violation of transport regulations despite commentary suggesting the opposite by Lord Leggatt in the Supreme Court ruling. We intend to intervene in this case to defend our Supreme Court victory.”

The ADCU pointed to developments in the US, where app drivers have locked horns with Uber over its anti-union stance, saying it had “concerns about Uber’s motivations on this side of the Atlantic, not only in the UK but throughout Europe”.

Uber workers have already been recognised as employees in France, while the Spanish government recently passed a law requiring platform companies to recognise drivers as employees and grant them corresponding rights.

The ADCU added its concerns over how drivers might be represented if they lost access to the app. “We are also concerned about Uber’s suggestion of preferential treatment of driver dismissal appeals. We believe that any such arrangement would be unlawful. We will continue to defend our members and hold Uber to account for all unfair dismissals and any adverse licensing action arising as a result,” they said.

Yvonne Gallagher, partner at law firm Harbottle & Lewis, said questions remained over whether Uber would pay the minimum wage for all working time or only for periods while logged into the app.

“It is not clear that Uber will concede that it must pay minimum wage for all the time the driver is available to work and logged into the app. If this aspect is not resolved quickly, it is likely that there will be further hearings in the employment tribunal in relation to payments due to drivers under the original judgment,” she said.

“GMB entered a similar agreement with Hermes in relation to its courier riders (also off the back of threatened litigation) so this agreement cements its position as a leading representative for gig economy workers.

“On a wider note, the spotlight shone by the pandemic on the vulnerability of workers in some sectors of the economy is surely likely to lead to an increase in interest in union recognition, a feature which had been in decline for many years in the UK. Uber in the US has been highly resistant to any union engagement so this is a significant change and perhaps a sign of more to come.”

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