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The difference between tradespeople and Uber drivers

Written by Charlie Mullins on Wednesday, 17 March 2021. Posted in Insight, HR, Analysis, People

Having been through a pretty turbulent 2020, I had high hopes for 2021. However, with the storming of the Capitol in Washington and Harry and Megan’s scandalous tell-all interview, the start of this year has proven to be just as unpredictable as the last.

The difference between tradespeople and Uber drivers

Having been through a pretty turbulent 2020, I had high hopes for 2021. However, with the storming of the Capitol in Washington and Harry and Megan’s scandalous tell-all interview, the start of this year has proven to be just as unpredictable as the last.

Another ground-breaking event this year was the Supreme Court ruling on Uber. In February, the highest court in the UK ruled in favor of 35 Uber drivers. The court ruled that Uber drivers are ‘workers’ and are therefore entitled to employee benefits, such as sick pay.

Many have branded this ruling as “historic” and believe it will be “a serious blow to Uber in what is one of its biggest consumer markets”. Following the ruling, there’s been a lot of speculation about what this means for the future of the gig economy and its workers. Personally, all I see in this ruling is yet another example of how the UK’s antiquated employment laws are ill-equipped to deal with modern working practices in the 21st Century United Kingdom.

The gig economy - where contractors are paid on a job-by-job basis - is not by definition good or bad. In just the same way as there have always been good and bad employers in the traditional workplace, companies operating under the so-called ‘gig-economy’ model can also be good or bad employers to work for. It’s not the financial model that’s at fault here - it’s the fact that there are, as there always have been, bad corporate actors who are prepared to maximise their profits by exploiting workers’ powerlessness.

Shutting down the gig-economy isn’t the answer, what’s needed is employment law that is fit for purpose, by which I mean it needs to protect workers against exploitation through low wages and poor working conditions. This has always been the point of employment laws and there seems to be no good reason for this to change. Workers must be properly remunerated for their labour and provided with decent working conditions in terms of safety and the provision of benefits. 

I am not an expert on the working environment of Uber drivers, but on the face of it this relatively unskilled group appears to have little power to demand good wages and conditions. It therefore does not surprise me to hear the drivers’ claims of long hours and low wages. If this is the case it’s unacceptable, and if the law is unable to protect these workers it needs to be changed.

In contrast to Uber drivers, which the recent Taylor Review on Modern Working Practices classified as ‘dependent contractors’, highly skilled tradespeople are not dependent in any way on the company they are contracting to. If skilled tradespeople, such as plumbers, electricians, carpenters and others, do not like the company they are working for, they can leave knowing that another company will quickly snap them up. Due to the fact they are highly skilled and in demand, skilled tradespeople have the power to dictate pay and conditions.

My argument is that although skilled contractors and Uber drivers are both technically gig economy workers, they are not the same, and should be viewed very differently by the law. Contractors irrespective of if they work for one company or five, should be able to accept higher rates of pay on the understanding that they must take care of their own sick and holiday pay.

However, what the courts appear to be doing as a result of their literal interpretation of outdated laws, is assuming that all companies that use contractors are doing so to cheat them out of a fair wage for their efforts. The logic of this appears to be that if one gig economy company is bad, they all are, and that’s just nonsensical.   

Yes, there needs to be some way the law can stop rogue companies robbing workers of their rights and ripping them off through low wages. But what we don’t need is ‘judge-made’ law that throws the baby out along with the bath water by lumping all gig-economy companies together and calling them criminals.

The sooner the government dusts off Matthew Taylor’s very sensible Review of Modern Working Practices and starts using its recommendations to draft sensible employment laws fit for the 21st century, the better.

About the Author

Charlie Mullins

Charlie Mullins

Charlie Mullins is founder of the UK’s largest independent plumber, Pimlico Plumbers and we're lucky to have him as our go-to guy on everything from growth to government.

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