Driver and rider matching service Uber, as I’ve told previously, has shown its head man Travis Kalanick to be not so much a valiant entrepreneur, or an outsider battling against vested interests, as a modern-day transportation robber baron, a Cornelius Vanderbilt for the 21st Century, seeking to drive his competitors from the field of battle and thereby create a monopoly which he can then exploit to the full.
And unlike the Vanderbilts of the 19th Century, Kalanick did not need the encumbrance of infrastructure, the railroads, locomotives, coaches, wagons, all that hassle over land. He would not even need employees, as Uber’s drivers were judged to be self-employed contractors, owed no paid leave, with no employee status, but kept in line by a customer review system that could see their contracts terminated at a moment’s notice.
All the time, Kalanick and his fellow bosses were creaming off a healthy commission from those contractors’ earnings, even as their drivers saddled themselves with loans for cars predicated on income that Kalanick and Co then slashed by 20% by imposing rate cuts on them. It was the kind of employer behaviour that might have been thought to have disappeared decades ago. But there it was - until today.
As the Independent has told, “Uber drivers are entitled to receive the National Minimum Wage and holiday pay because they are workers, not self-employed, an employment tribunal has ruled … In a landmark ruling that has implications for millions of workers, the tribunal rejected Uber's argument that the drivers do not work for Uber, but merely use its technology. As workers they are entitled to essential rights, such as sick pay and holiday pay. The case will directly affect 40,000 of Uber drivers”.
Uber, of course, is appealing, but only in the legal sense. But whether they can overturn such an emphatic ruling is uncertain. Meanwhile, Frances O’Grady of the TUC has pointed out that the case “has exposed the dark side of the gig economy … For many workers this is a rigged economy, where bosses can weasel out of paying the minimum wage or providing basics such as holiday pay and rest breaks”.
Many Uber drivers have effectively been working for little more than £4 an hour - and any breaks they get are by good fortune or a slackening of orders. The financial commitments they have been forced to make in order to take part in the new, vibrant sharing economy - where Uber takes a share for doing very little - prevent them stepping off the treadmill.
Interestingly, the usual Uber cheerleaders have been either silent, or like free sheet City AM have whined about the poor bosses (“Extra costs to @Uber could be as much as £17m each year”). Uber has a war chest measured in billions of dollars, and there is the right-wing press blubbering about £17 million. No mention of the drivers - all we will hear is how summoning an Uber ride will get more expensive.
That merely highlights the exploitation which today’s decision is set to bring to an end. For too long we have been sold the idea of “disruptive technology” and cheapness to the consumer. The bullying corporation and the little people who get in the way do not even qualify as collateral damage - they don’t even get to be part of the story.
Today that may have changed, and for the good. Just rejoice at that news.