13:29, December 20 334 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-20 13:29:04
A victory for workers over Uber. But beware the Brexit roadblock

Working in the public relations department of Uber must be a sisyphean task – especially after today’s ruling by the European court of justice that Uber is in fact a commercial transport service, and so must comply with the rules governing employers of transport providers.

The argument that the app was merely functioning as an intermediary between drivers and passengers understandably failed to sway the court. The company will now have little option but to give drivers who use the app employment status. Despite Uber arguing that the US company was “a computer services business”, the ECJ ruled that it was directly involved in carrying passengers, and should therefore be subject to local and national trading laws across the 28-member European Union.

There are wide implications for Uber, but no less for the gig economy: countless companies have sought to avoid employment rules, endlessly arguing against their own status as an employer or service provider. In May, when the case was first mooted, a spokesperson for Uber complained that the anticipated ruling against the company would “undermine the much needed reform of outdated laws which prevent millions of Europeans from accessing a reliable ride at the tap of a button”.

But that was, and is, nonsense. There isn’t anything to stop Uber operating within the parameters of local licensing law, except a desire for ever greater profits. The company said the ruling would mean little, since in many countries the app already adheres to local regulations and rules. In which case the answer surely is: fine, then don’t complain.

But of course, the company isn’t happy, and many other hi-tech startups will also be on edge. Any company that profits through the loopholes of the gig economy will fight to retain its status as an ephemeral presence, as an idea and concept rather than an employer. One curious aspect of the gig economy emanating from Silicon Valley is how few new ideas there are: it’s almost impossible to board the tube or open social media without being bombarded by companies who claim to have reinvented mattresses, taxi companies, razors, takeaways and cleaning services. When the ride-hailing app Lyft announced a new service that would follow a certain route at certain times and pick up multiple passengers, many people pointed out that it had invented the bus.

Perhaps the only thing these companies do disrupt is our employment rights. Bus drivers, train drivers and a huge number of cab drivers are unionised, and expect certain terms and conditions, including at least the minimum wage, and sickness and holiday pay. However, the Uberisation of our economy seems set on finding ways to pay workers as little as possible – indeed, on denying they employ any workers at all.

Such companies look to millennials to defend them. But the hope that millennials are enthusiastic users of the apps, and are thus more likely to bridle at the attacks on those who provide them, falls down because young people are also more likely to be in precarious work. At a rough estimate, just one in four of my friends under 40 are in permanent employment. Young people are angry about the gig economy, because they are part of it.

If one part of the ECJ judgment stands out for me, it is this: soon the EU will have one member fewer. Think on that, because the head of a union representing gig economy workers has already warned of the possible scrapping of our rights after Brexit. And when Labour MPs asked the prime minister to convince them that the European working time directive wasn’t under threat, she couldn’t.

So celebrate the Uber ruling. It’s a victory for workers’ rights. But for those of us facing the cold winds of Brexit, these battles are far from over.

Dawn Foster is a Guardian columnist