Uber has been accused of trying to deter drivers from seeking compensation for missed holiday and minimum wage payments after a landmark court ruling.
The taxi-hailing app may have to pay out more than £100m to more than 10,000 drivers involved in cases linked to a UK supreme court ruling on Friday that they must be classified as workers. Uber has previously argued that its 60,000 UK drivers are self-employed independent contractors with no right to holiday pay, a company pension or the national minimum wage.
The case began when two drivers, James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, took Uber to court on behalf of a group of about 23 others.
In a message to drivers after the ruling, Uber’s general manager for northern and eastern Europe, Jamie Heywood, said that as a result of the court’s decision “a small number of drivers from 2016 can be classified as workers, but this judgment does not apply to drivers who earn on the app today.”
He said Uber had made significant changes to its business in recent years, including giving drivers more control over their earnings and bringing in new protections including free insurance in case of sickness or injury.
One driver who received the message said: “After hearing about the court decision I was feeling slightly elated and thought at last things may change, but when I received the message from Uber it felt like a kick in the teeth saying it only applies to a few drivers.”
Lawyers acting for the claimants argue that Heywood’s statement was misleading.
Nigel Mackay, a partner at the law firm Leigh Day, which is acting for more than 2,200 drivers, said: “There is no way they can say ‘this doesn’t apply’ with confidence. To suggest that the changes they talk about have any impact on the supreme court findings, the effect of that is very misleading. Uber is trying to deter people from the claim with this message.”
The firm believes the drivers are due about £12,000 in compensation each, which would cost Uber more than £26m.
If Uber does not accept that the court’s ruling on Farrar and Aslam applies to all of its drivers, the linked cases will restart at the employment tribunal after being paused while the supreme court’s decision was awaited. Lawyers said hundreds more drivers had applied to join the claims since the ruling.
Mackay said the judgment was clear about specific factors which indicated Uber’s control of the drivers by, for example, setting the cost of a journey and handing out penalties related to users’ ratings. He said it was difficult to see that any of the changes to conditions Uber had talked about had changed that level of control.
Andrew Nugent Smith, the managing director of the law firm Keller Lenkner, which is representing more than 8,000 drivers, was contacted by about 1,000 more over the weekend. It believes those already on its books could claim an average of £10,000 each in compensation, which would cost Uber about £80m.
“To suggest that there is no impact at all on the wider driver community, and current conditions and working practices, is misleading,” he said. While the supreme court decision “did relate to historic terms and practices, that Uber has since changed, we are confident that drivers must still be treated as workers”.
An Uber source denied the claim that Heywood’s message had misled drivers or was intended to deter them from seeking compensation. The source said the company was consulting about changes it could make to its working practices. It is expected to announce a response to the consultation within weeks and wants the government to consider how to ensure there is a level playing field with a response to the ruling across the whole ride-hailing industry.