UK trade union takes legal action against Uber

Taxi-booking service Uber has once again come under fire, with British trade union GMB seeking improved pay and working conditions for drivers.

Uber is again facing legal action, this time from GMB, one of the UK's largest trade unions, which is demanding that Uber drivers be provided with the national minimum wage, paid leave, and rest breaks.

The union, whose members number almost 631,000, has argued that the taxi-booking service "is in breach of a legal duty to provide them with basic rights on pay, holidays, health and safety, and on discipline and grievances".

Uber has argued that its drivers are not employees of the company, and therefore are not entitled to these rights.

"The Uber assertion that drivers are 'partners' who are not entitled to rights at work normally afforded to workers is being contested," said Nigel Mackay, a lawyer representing GMB's case against Uber.

"Uber not only pays the drivers, but it also effectively controls how much passengers are charged and requires drivers to follow particular routes. As well as this, it uses a ratings system to assess drivers' performance.

"We believe that it's clear from the way Uber operates that it owes the same responsibilities towards its drivers as any other employer does to its workers. In particular, its drivers should not be denied the right to minimum wage and paid leave."

The latest UK case comes off the back of the California Labor Commission last month handing down a ruling deeming that a former driver was actually an employee of the company, rather than simply a contractor, as Uber had argued.

GMB has made several protests against Uber's operations. In June, the union called for Transport for London to revoke Uber's licence, after a driver with fake insurance documents was able to pick up a customer.

"Despite recent changes to the document system, it is still possible to upload a fake insurance document without detection," Steve Garelick, branch secretary for the professional drivers division of GMB, said. "Transporting passengers without proper insurance cover places them in jeopardy in the event of injury due to road accidents."

A year ago, the trade union also objected to Uber remaining largely unregulated within the country, saying the practice risks safety and results in a lack of tax payments.

"GMB members consider that the introduction of unregulated taxi drivers, ending criminal records checks, ending vehicle checks and ending local licensing will be a hammer blow to the taxi and private hire industry," said Steve Garelick, president of the GMB professional drivers branch.

"GMB stands with the Licenced Private Hire Car Association (LPHCA) in condemning the wilful avoidance by Uber BV of the tax obligations that other private hire and taxi operators in the UK adhere to.

"There is also a concern that anyone can claim to certain apps they are licensed as a driver, thus putting vulnerable individuals at risk without formal checks in place those offering applications cannot prove that the driver sent is the driver they have details of."

Uber's legal issues extend worldwide: Private cars were banned in mid January from all ride-hailing taxi apps in China; tens of thousands of dollars in penalties were issued throughout Taiwan as of December; and the São Paulo Mayor's office in Brazil fined several drivers $900 on average for operating taxi services without legal authorisation in August last year.

In India, Uber was threatened with shutdown in October if it did not alter its business model to offer a two-step authentication process for its payment service, and consequently introduced a mobile wallet link-up with Paytm in November. However, a month later, the government banned Uber from operating in New Delhi when 32-year-old driver Shiv Kumar Yadav was charged with allegedly raping a 26-year-old female passenger.

Despite this, Uber relaunched in India within six weeks, resuming operations under a radio taxi licence, emphasising its enhanced security and stating that it would be implementing an in-app SOS panic button. It also began sharing all driver and vehicle data with the Transportation Department and traffic police.

Similarly, in December last year, an Uber driver in Boston was charged with the alleged sexual assault of a passenger. Uber's head of global safety Phillip Gardenas responded by saying that the company would work on developing biometric and voice-verification systems and polygraph tests for its global screening processes.

Uber was also forced to suspend operations in Portland, Oregon, for three months from late December while the city works on establishing regulatory guidelines for taxi apps.

Earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission fined Uber $7.3 million for failing to comply with state requirements in regards to reporting ride statistics by zip code; the origin and destination for each trip; the amount paid; the number of customers who have requested accessible vehicles, and how often Uber could supply this; issues with drivers; and incidents, including any insurance having to be paid by a party other than Uber.

This month, Shanghai authorities also made the decision to begin increasing fines for drivers and companies operating ride-sharing services, with penalties of up to 10,000 yuan ($1,611) and a three- to six-month suspension of their driving licence.

Despite these legal challenges, Uber saw the value of its Series E round of venture funding rise by $1 billion to $2.2 billion in February, with the round's total capacity reportedly reaching $2.8 billion. The company is now reportedly valued at $50 billion, and has around 15,000 drivers in London.

With AAP