Landmark UK verdict on Uber drivers as staffers, sparks hope

By Express News Service
A landmark verdict of the UK Supreme Court  on Friday classifying ride-hailing app Uber’s drivers as its employees and not self-employed, was widely welcomed by drivers’ unions in India, hoping it would help build their case for changing the oppressive work conditions back home.

It ruled that the driver would have full protection as an employee from the moment the app is switched on and not from when the ride commences. A similar demand for the regularisation of Uber and Ola drivers is pending before the Industrial Tribunal in Kerala’s Thrissur. T R S Kumar, president of the All Kerala Online Taxi Driver Union, said online taxi drivers are upbeat about the UK verdict.

“We were first in India to file a similar case. We hope the UK Supreme Court verdict would be helpful in our case as well. It will surely be a lesson to employers to treat online taxi drivers as regular employees with pension and other welfare schemes,” he said.

P Anbazhagan, president of the Tamil Nadu Call Taxi Drivers and Owners Association, revealed that since the last seven days both Ola and Uber had stopped deducting trip cancellation fees of Rs 50 from drivers.

‘Cutting work hours will burden drivers’

“I don’t know if this was the fallout of the UK case. Anyway, we are forced to work for at least 12 hours to meet our needs. We have been insisting that the cab aggregator fee should be reduced to 10% from the existing 24 to 28%,” he said. The downside could be reducing work hours for drivers to, say, eight hours a day, as it will not help them meet their financial needs, said J Ramanujam, president of Thozhargal Car Ottunargal Amaippu Sara Thozhir Sangam in Tamil Nadu, adding about 80% of call taxis are purchased through loans from bank or money lenders.

“Till March last year, drivers worked for 12-13 hours a day and their daily earning stood at Rs 3,000-3,500. Of that, Rs 1,500 went towards fuel and maintenance and `1,000 for rental,” he pointed out. In Vijayawada, cab drivers urged Uber to reset its policy and take a humane approach. “Hundreds of cab drivers were sitting at home during Covid outbreak, but there was no support system from Uber. It blacklisted those who failed to renew insurance coverage in time. We are also not sure whether the fare for the ride is credited to our account or not,” said Ajay Kumar, an Uber driver.

Drivers in tier-II cities like Bhubaneswar, too, welcomed the ruling. “Since we struggle to earn our livelihood, classifying us as workers will certainly help get an assured income apart from other benefits, including EPF,” said Kailash, an Uber driver in Bhubaneswar. H owever, Tanveer Pasha, president of the Ola-Uber Drivers Association in Bengaluru, was not as upbeat. He said six months back a similar order was passed by California courts and the parliament there. Following this, on the request of the association, the Karnataka government formed a committee with labour minister Suresh Kumar as its head.

Many suggestions were given, but nothing moved forward. “The state government passed the buck to the Centre. We will press them again in the wake of the UK ruling,” he added. Uber does not want to change its contract policy so as to avoid labour laws, and the government appears to be protecting the company’s interests, he alleged. Another variable is the oversupply of cabs in the market. Treating drivers as employees could result in a correction, leading to a drop in the number of cabs on the road.

While this year’s Union Budget recognised gig and platform workers and promised to bring them under the social security cover, Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), said, “The main issue is that we are routinely shunted between three departments – transport, labour and IT – if we go to them with a grievance.” The Hyderabad-based Salauddin said there was still confusion whether social security benefits will be extended to app-based workers through a welfare board and what the contribution of the aggregators would be to the fund.

Unilateral decisionsAmong the factors the court examined were Uber dictating the fare and the driver’s share, unilateral contract terms, and penalising them through star ratings and/or multiple rejection of rides

(Inputs from Toby Antony @ Kochi; B Anbuselvan@ Chennai; Bosky Khanna @ Bengaluru; Sudarsan Moharana @ Bhubaneswar)