Uber loses UK legal battle over drivers’ rights – but ambition continues to soar with plans for flying cars

Legal challenges aside, Uber has set its sights on the skies, detailing plans for Uber Elevate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 October, 2016, 10:12am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 October, 2016, 5:57pm

Ride-sharing cab service Uber has lost a British tribunal case brought by drivers demanding basic workers’ rights, in a decision that could have repercussions across the “gig economy”.

However, legal challenges have failed to constrain the company’s boundless ambition, as Uber last week outlined its plans to introduce flying cars within the next decade.

The Central London Employment Tribunal on Friday ruled in favour of two drivers who argued they should receive holiday and sick pay and be paid Britain’s national minimum wage as they were effectively employees of the California-based tech company.

They were supported by the GMB union, who said the decision could have “major” implications for around 30,000 drivers across England and Wales.

Tens of thousands of people in London drive with Uber precisely because they want to be self-employed and their own boss
Jo Bertram, Uber’s UK general manager

“We are delighted that the employment tribunal has found in favour of our clients,” Nigel Mackay from law firm Leigh Day said after the decision.

“This judgment acknowledges the central contribution that Uber’s drivers have made to Uber’s success by confirming that its drivers are not self-employed but that they work for Uber as part of the company’s business.”

Self-employed workers in Britain are not entitled to certain rights and privileges, including paid leave and the minimum wage.

Uber, whose European headquarters is in the Netherlands, argued that British drivers should not be allowed to enforce employment rights in British courts but make their claims in Dutch courts instead.

The company’s UK regional general manager, Jo Bertram, said Uber would appeal against the ruling.

“Tens of thousands of people in London drive with Uber precisely because they want to be self-employed and their own boss,” she said in a statement.

She added: “While the decision of this preliminary hearing only affects two people we will be appealing it.”

The cab hire service has been accused of violating employment rights in other countries. In April 2016, Uber drivers in California and Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the company claiming they had been misclassified as independent contractors. But before the trial could begin in California, the company paid US$100 million to the drivers to settle the lawsuit.

In Hong Kong, drivers who had planned to argue they had the right to pick and choose between jobs abandoned their case, and will now likely face criminal charges as a result.

Uber is a cab service company that connects passengers to drivers through an app on its passengers’ smartphones. Customers pay Uber directly for the journey and the company, in turn, remunerates drivers.

Employment lawyers warned Friday’s ruling could affect other workers who have flexible hours but no labour benefits.

“This landmark decision will not only have huge financial implications for Uber and its drivers ... but also the many other companies which operate within the so-called ‘gig economy’,” said Julie Morris, a senior employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon solicitors firm in London.

A step backwards? Chinese cities’ harsh draft rules against car-hailing apps ‘hinder innovation’

“They will now have to review their business model or face a deluge of similar claims from workers.”

Uber’s legal challenges, however, have done little to ground the company’s big dreams. While most of the auto industry is focused on getting self-driving cars rolling, Uber already has its eyes set to the skies.

In a white paper published this week, the company detailed plans for Uber Elevate, its new division for offering rides through flying cars. The company hopes to have the programme up and running within the next 10 years.

Hong Kong Uber drivers will face criminal trial after defence case flops

The company acknowledges that there are challenges for getting this project off the ground. As opposed to using helicopters, which are expensive and noisy, the company will instead be relying on VTOLs, or “a network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically”.

The VTOLs are cheaper and quieter, and their electronic basis also mean they will better for the environment than the gas powered helicopters. Battery technology still needs to improve, and as these are flying vehicles the company notes there will need to be some air traffic control mechanism in place. These vehicles also will need properly trained pilots at the control, at least until they too become self-driving.

Additional reporting by Associated Press