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Uber’s UK supreme court defeat should mean big changes to the gig economy | Uber

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“Move fast and break things” was famously the mantra of Silicon Valley tech companies. It was passionately embraced by Uber, the ride-hailing company set up to put taxis out of business. Unfortunately for it, one of the things it broke was UK employment law – which led the UK supreme court to issue a judgment on 19 February confirming that this was indeed the case.

Uber (for those who, including this columnist, have never used it) is a technology platform that puts customers seeking a taxi in touch with drivers who own cars and are willing to provide rides. Everything that happens in that process, other than conversations between customers and drivers, is controlled by the platform. Uber’s case – and business model – depends on drivers being regarded as self-employed contractors, ie cheap. The case decided by the court hinged on the question of whether drivers were indeed merely contractors, or “workers” entitled to a minimum wage and holiday pay – protections they were unable to enjoy while Uber classified them as self-employed.

The court unanimously upheld a 2016 employment tribunal decision maintaining that drivers are in a “position of subordination and dependancy to Uber”. The judgment is worth reading just to see the justices’ elegant exposition of this proposition. Uber set maximum fares; drivers had no say in their contracts; the application imposed penalties if drivers cancelled too many requests; and they had little or no ability to improve their economic position through “professional or entrepreneurial skill” – so in practice the only way in which they could increase their earnings was by working longer hours while constantly meeting Uber’s measures of performance. Which meant they worked for Uber and not themselves.

Although Uber are insisting the verdict only applies to the 25 drivers who brought the claim, in reality it sets a precedent for how millions of gig economy workers are treated in the UK and elsewhere (because foreign courts pay attention to what courts in other jurisdictions have decided). In that sense, the judgment is a landmark one with significant implications for gig-economy outfits such as Deliveroo and others.

Mind you, it doesn’t go the whole way to regarding Uber drivers as employees. There are three employment categories under UK law: employees, who are guaranteed employment rights and benefits; workers, who enjoy some of those rights; and the self-employed, who have very little protection. The supreme court has just moved the drivers from the third of these categories to the second. But it’s a start.

So what happens next? Will Uber tweak its platform to reduce its level of control over its “new” workers? If it does then, as the Financial Times pointed out, it will be less able to guarantee customers a uniform service – which is one of the reasons why Uber was so popular with foreign visitors to Britain. (I gather that a common complaint of Uber drivers to their passengers in Cambridge is that the bottom dropped out of their business once the pandemic forced Chinese students to return home.)

Another possible response will be to raise prices to cover the additional costs of conforming with the law as decided by the supreme court. Since Uber is pathologically unprofitable (London seems to have been one of the few cities where it was making some money), a significant rise in its operating costs seems certain to make the financial picture worse.

So, on the face of it, Uber is cornered – by UK law on the one hand, and by financial realities on the other. But, as any zoologist will confirm, wild beasts are often at their most dangerous when cornered. And Uber – which until recently had the most toxic corporate culture after Facebook – is unlikely to play nice. We had a taste of that in California a while back when it – and an alliance of other gig-economy companies – shelled out $200m to successfully support Proposition 22, a measure that allows them to continue classifying their drivers as “independent contractors” rather than “employees” with mandated benefits.

Uber is already trying the Proposition 22 approach in Brussels. It has published a preposterous “white paper” explaining how important it is to preserve the freedom of 600,000 European workers to “access flexible earning opportunities”. The “current legal ambiguity on the status of independent workers”, it goes on, “makes it difficult for platforms like Uber to provide both access to flexible work and benefits and social protections to independent workers”.

Well, in the UK at least, that “current legal ambiguity” has been eliminated. So all that remains now is for Uber to come to terms with the one thing that all global tech companies viscerally loathe: the idea that they have to obey the law of the petty jurisdictions in which they operate. And one of the deliciously ironic side-effects of Brexit is that the option of kicking the case into the long grass of the European court of justice is no longer available! Sometimes, one must be grateful for small mercies.

What I’ve been reading

Special effects
There’s a fascinating post by Eugene Wei on his blog about some of the unexpected affordances of TikTok for enabling creative responses to videos.

Getting with the program
Paul Graham, one of the few good essayists the tech industry has produced, has contributed a lovely autobiographical essay, What I Worked On.

Chief of staff
Trump Hotel employees reveal what it was really like working there in a nice piece of reportage by the Washingtonian magazine.

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UK – Deliveroo riders strike over pay, gig work conditions (Associated Press)

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08 April 2021

Riders for the meal delivery work services platform Deliveroo held a strike in London yesterday over pay and working conditions, part of a broader backlash against one of the UK’s biggest gig economy companies, reports the Associated Press. Socially distanced protests were also planned in York, Reading, Sheffield and Wolverhampton to demand fair pay, safety protections and basic workers’ rights. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, which represents migrant and gig workers, expected hundreds of riders to take part. Deliveroo said that “this small self-appointed union does not represent the vast majority of riders who tell us they value the total flexibility they enjoy.” Rider surveys found most are happy with the company and flexibility was their priority, the company said in a statement.

The strike coincides with the first day of unconditional share trading for Deliveroo, which went public last week in a debut that saw the company lose nearly 30% of their value. However, a number of institutional investors skipped the IPO, citing concerns about employment conditions for riders and a dual-class shareholder structure that gives founder Will Shu outsize control.

The company saw its business boom over the past year because of Covid-19 restrictions that powered demand for meal deliveries. Riders say they haven’t been sharing in the success because the company has been paying them less. Deliveroo and other gig companies in the UK that rely on flexible workforces are also facing looming regulatory challenges, after the Supreme Court recently ruled Uber drivers should be classed as “workers” and not self-employed, entitling them to benefits such as minimum wage and pensions.

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Winter Games gig tough job for French ice master

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Remy Boehler is just one step away from realizing his Olympic dream in China, as the French ice master has been invited to lead the Capital Gymnasium’s ice-making team in preparations for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.

“Everything is good,” Boehler said before his team set the first ice surface transition underway during the “Experience Beijing” Ice Sports Testing Program running through April 10.

“Everybody has a lot of jobs for making good ice, and I think it’s a good point for preparing the Games,” added the 44-year-old, who said three years ago in PyeongChang 2018, his third Winter Games, that he’s quite willing to serve the next Olympics.

Like every previous Olympic Winter Games, the Beijing 2022 figure skating and short track speed skating competitions will be staged on the same rink in the 53-year-old Capital Gymnasium, which has been newly renovated.

From Boehler’s point of view, however, it’s not the same at all, since figure skaters need “softer” ice to better support jumps while short track speed skaters favor harder ice for increased speed.

To meet the requirement of both sports, Boehler and his team have to adjust the ice temperature from minus 3-4 degrees Celsius for figure skating to minus 6-7 degrees for short track.

“This is the only venue that has to switch between two sports in the middle of a day, which gives us huge stress during these testing events,” said Ding Dong, head of the Capital Gymnasium venue operation team, explaining why they arranged seven transitions in six testing days.

With the most recently updated Beijing 2022 schedule seeing both figure skating and short track events on one competition day, while the rest of the days have the two sports every other day, the challenges to the field of play transition are mounting.

“The transition involves many aspects around the rink, including the conversions of some temporary facilities, like the starting station and the protective pads. The photo positions will differ as well.

“But, ice is above every other thing. It’s also the most difficult part,” echoed Shen Ling, transition manager of the CG venue operation team.

As short track and figure skating won China the most gold medals at the Winter Games, the two sports have a solid fan base in the host country, possibly leading to a more complicated situation for Boehler’s team, seeing that the Capital Gymnasium will be often fully packed at Olympic time.

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New Chart Positions In Gig App Provider Ranking

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Unemployment claims are up one week, down the next in the topsy-turvy world after COVID-19. Where does that leave gig workers? In the driver’s seat, as this update to PYMNTS’ Provider Ranking of Gig Economy Apps tells us loud and clear.

Not only are there gigs, but it’s never been easier to pull up those postings on your smartphone and peruse them like a restaurant menu. Makes getting a gig a whole lot simpler. We’ve got a job, so get out the Ranking Machine for the Provider Ranking of Gig Economy Apps.

The Top Five

Our four top-ranked apps seem to have entrenched to some degree (although you never know).

Still at No. 1 is DoorDash, donating a million bucks to driver’s charities in April, followed as usual by Uber Driver at No. 2.

Instacart Shopper needs no assistance from customer service at its No. 3 spot — and for that matter, neither does the Fiverr freelance marketplace app, keeping busy at No. 4.

Now for a changeup to close out this section: Amazon Flex moves up one spot to enter the top 5 at No. 5.

The Top 10

At No. 6, we find the Upwork app down one chart position from last month, with self-explanatory app Freelancer also dropping one position to land at No. 7.

Rideshare legend Lyft likes preferred parking at No. 8, just where we left it last time.

Hare beats tortoise, as it were, as the TaskRabbit app jumps up a spot to No. 9, pushing the mighty Grubhub for Drivers to No. 10 and completing this edition of the Provider Ranking of Gig Economy Apps.

That’s what we call part of a full day’s work.

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NEW PYMNTS STUDY: OPEN BANKING 2021 

About The Study: Open banking-powered payment offerings have been available in some markets since 2018, but the pandemic drove many consumers to try these solutions for the first time — and there’s no going back. In the Open Banking Report, PYMNTS examines open banking’s rise as merchants and payment services providers worldwide tap into such options to offer secure, seamless account-to-account payments.



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