In recent years, the advance in technology and shifting economic conditions have contributed to the emergence and rise of “gig economy”. Gig economy refers to on-demand, peer or platform economy. It often involves a business model where individuals take up on-demand jobs or gig works through digital platforms such as a smartphone application or website. Popular examples of such applications in Hong Kong include Uber and Deliveroo.
While gig workers are often viewed as “self-employed persons” or “independent contractors” in many jurisdictions and are unable to enjoy protections under labour law, a recent UK Supreme Court decision classified Uber drivers as “workers” and ruled that they are entitled to minimum wage, paid leave and other legal protection. Although the services provided by Uber has been ruled illegal in Hong Kong, the case sheds light on the classifications of gig workers in general.
UK Supreme Court ruling
In Uber BV and Others (Appellants) v Aslam and others (Respondents)  UKSC 5, the UK Supreme Court explored the employment status of private hire vehicle drivers who provide their services through the Uber application. The UK employment law distinguishes three categories of persons who enjoy varying degrees of labour protection, including:
- those employed under a contract of employment (which is akin to the concept of “employees” under Hong Kong employment law);
- those self-employed people who are in business on their own account and undertake work for their clients (which is similar to the concept of “independent contractors” under Hong Kong employment law); and
- those “workers” in an intermediate class who are self-employed but provide their services as part of a profession or business undertaking carried on by someone else, who tend to have some characteristics of both of the above categories (but there is no such intermediate category of “workers” under Hong Kong employment law).
The Supreme Court’s findings
The Supreme Court considered the purpose of the relevant statutory provisions, which is to offer protection to those people who are in a subordinate and dependent position in relation to the employer and are vulnerable to exploitation.
In determining the status of Uber drivers, the Supreme Court took into account a number of facts found by the labour tribunal which point towards to the relative degree of control exercised by Uber over their drivers. These findings of facts include (1) Uber being able to fix the remuneration paid to drivers, (2) the contractual terms on which drivers perform their services are dictated by Uber, (3) once drivers logged onto the Uber application, their choice of accepting requests for rides is restricted by Uber, (4) Uber exerts significant control over how drivers deliver their services by various methods including vetting the types of cars, suggesting routes and using rating systems for managing performance and terminating relationship with drivers, as well as (5) restricting communication between passengers and drivers to prevent drivers from establishing any relationship beyond am individual ride.
On the basis of the labour tribunal’s findings of facts, the Supreme Court ruled that Uber exerted tight control on the drivers and the services provided. The drivers were in a position of subordination and dependency in relation to Uber such that the drivers had little or no ability to improve their economic position through professional or entrepreneurial skill. In practice, the only way the drivers can increase their earnings was by working longer hours while constantly meeting Uber’s measures of performance. The Supreme Court found that the drivers were rightly found as “workers” under UK employment law.
Classification in Hong Kong
In Hong Kong, an individual may perform work as an “employee” or an “independent contractor”. As per the Court of Final Appeal’s decision in the leading case of Poon Chau Nam v Yim Siu Cheung  1 HKLRD 951, the modern approach to the question of whether one person was another’s employee is to examine all the features of their relationship against the background of the indicia developed in the case law with a view to deciding whether, as a matter of overall impression, the relationship was one of employment. The following indicia of employment, albeit not exhaustive, will be likely be considered by the court to decide whether there is an employer-employee between the parties:
- the degree of control exercised by the employer;
- who provided the equipment for performing the services;
- whether the individual may hire additional helpers for performing the services;
- the degree of financial risk taken by the parties;
- the degree of responsibility for investment and management of the parties; and
- whether and how far the individual had an opportunity of profiting from sound management in the performance of his or her tasks.
Although the classifications adopted by the English and Hong Kong Courts are not identical, and it seems that in Hong Kong there is a higher threshold for individuals to be entitled to protections under its employment law as “employees”, the case still sheds light on the possibility that the Hong Kong Court may reach an overall impression that gig workers such as Uber drivers are not independent contractors given the significant degree of control that the business has over the gig workers, which is an important factor that Hong Kong Courts would consider when determining whether an employer-employee relationship exists
At the same time, there have been calls on the Hong Kong Government to address the emergence and rise of gig economy and review the existing labour legislation to enhance protection of labour rights of gig workers. However, the Hong Kong Government has stated that it has no plan to expand the scope of the current employment legislation to cover selfemployed persons
For companies which adopt business models involving the provision of services by gig workers, it is imperative to consider the classification of such gig workers from an early stage and seek professional advice on the issue if needed. Whether an individual is classified as an “employee” or an “independent contractor” will have significant impact in terms of the statutory benefits enjoyed by the individual and the statutory duties and obligations imposed on employers, which may in turn affect the financial planning, risk management and business viability of the companies.