Why your Uber rides may no longer be uber-cheap: examining the potential effects of a landmark case on the student population

By Elena Connolly, third year English Literature Undergraduate.

It’s pre-drinks on a Wednesday night. Everyone knows tonight is a big one and all lectures tomorrow are going to be written off. Despite everything in Durham being within 15 minutes’ walk away, we have all reached that point in the night when it gets a bit late for entry and your mates suggest that you all should take an ‘Uber’ to the club. Hey, why not right, it’s only a fiver? Via the ancient systematic process of “Dibbs I’m not doing it”, you get elected to book it on your phone. After putting in that shamefully small distance between your location and your goal, you realise something…Uber is no longer uber-cheap.

In the July earlier this year, the Supreme Court gave a two-day hearing of the Uber BV and others v Aslam and others case. The decision made from this will be a landmark judgement that will unarguably affect the field of employment for 5 million UK workers within the ‘gig-economy’, an important term for people of the younger generation to understand, given its increasing prevalence in today’s world. 

Uber is attempting to appeal to the Supreme Court regarding a previous decision in an Employment Tribunal, deciding that Mr Aslam and others were employed as “workers” (individuals who are entitled to some, but not all employment rights) rather than “self-employed” (individuals who are given very little to no employment protection) under the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the National Minimum Wage Act 1998.

If Uber’s appeal is dismissed by the Supreme Court, this will mean that all of Uber’s drivers will be classed as workers. Uber will be then faced with having to provide their drivers with key worker rights including minimum wage and holiday leave, amongst other benefits.

From an immediate student perspective, we may perceive this decision to be negative from a financial standpoint. There is the potential for lots of back pay to be required, with the years of accrued holiday pay, in addition to the new benefits implemented for many workers, adding up to potentially monumental costs to the business, that will likely drive up prices for us, the riders. In August a similar issue occurred, where the state of California had given Uber and Lyft just days to reclassify their drivers as employees. Uber and Lyft stated that the potential California ruling would force them to raise prices by 20 to 120 percent. We could therefore infer that the Supreme Court ruling may amount to similar price rises in the UK.

Whilst to the everyday student the decisions made in the case are thus likely to seem an annoyance, and require us to look elsewhere for our super-cheap taxi rides, I want to instead suggest the huge long-term positive effects this will have for our generation. 

This case is thus a landmark moment not just for the drivers, but for our own futures, in how workers in the gig economy are going to be defined in a modernising and increasingly technology-influenced workplace. 

The NatCen Panel found in 2017 that those involved in the gig economy were generally younger than the rest of the population. At 56%, over half of those involved in the gig economy were aged 18 to 34. With these statistics increasing every year, the new generation is ever more likely to take up a job in this area, as it is viewed to play a strong role in supporting the desire for a work/life balance amongst young people. This case is thus a landmark moment not just for the drivers, but for our own futures, in how workers in the gig economy are going to be defined in a modernising and increasingly technology-influenced workplace. 

Yaseen Aslam, one of the two Uber drivers who brought the UK case, brings a great summary of how some gig economy employers currently function, stating “What’s the point in having these [protective employment] laws if someone like Uber can come in and make a mockery of it all?” Hopefully this case will set the benchmark for fairness and transparency in this area, especially with the court’s significant decision to ignore Uber’s own contract terms to call their drivers ‘self-employed’, demonstrating how employers like Uber deliberately design them to exclude statutory rights for the workforce and exonerate the company from any responsibilities as an employer. 

This demonstrates the change that this new landmark case can bring to the younger generation, as a worker status may provide the stability and protection to encourage Millennials and the incoming Gen Z-ers to flock to this area of work.

A recent paper by Prudential gives a fascinating insight into the effects of the gig economy on the millennial generation, which the paper classes as individuals between the ages of 18 to 35. Whilst it found that 67% of Millennials see gig work as playing a strong role in helping them to achieve their aspirations and proactively pursue this type of work, this has so far left many with financial wellness challenges, with 70% of this generation in the gig economy having no access to any employer-based benefits. This demonstrates the change that this new landmark case can bring to the younger generation, as a worker status may provide the stability and protection to encourage Millennials and the incoming Gen Z-ers to flock to this area of work. It has the potential to recognise a changing demand for gig economy work to be taken more seriously as a form of permanent employment. 

What remains is the existential question for these companies working in the gig economy. What kind of demand should they expect for their services once they stop being so cheap? Whilst every student likes a great deal, and especially loves things that cost less than their true value, will we be picking up the pieces left by an exploitative employment industry?

Looking ahead from where we are now, the gig economy workforce is not to be doubted in its growth. With events looming over us like Brexit and the long-term effects of Covid-19 on the economy, the number of individuals, especially students entering this workplace, will only increase as young people are forced out of more stable forms of work into a flexible but ill-defined future. Perhaps then, on reflection, we can spare a few quid more for an Uber? 

Some links you may want to check out for further info:

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