The story of Uber proves that everyone needs unions

Uber drivers have no job security, no rights and no voice within the company

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8-14 Feb 2016 is heartunions week. To mark the week, Left Foot Forward are running a series of articles about trade unions. You can find out more at heartunions.org

Hardly a day goes by without Uber hitting the headlines in some way. The US multinational operates a mobile phone app allowing the public to book minicab rides direct with drivers registered in cities all over the world, including the UK.

GMB is organising Uber drivers to make sure that the stories people hear are increasingly those of the drivers working for Uber.

Uber claim that they are not an employer of drivers – that they are a technology company running an app which happens to link people up with cab rides. However, GMB believe that – both in law and in common sense – it is clear that Uber is a minicab company and has responsibility to its drivers just like any other employer.

At the moment Uber says its drivers as self-employed ‘partners’, which means in practice that it can get away with paying rates that work out below the minimum wage, and not providing the normal safety protection that everyone else gets at work.

It can also ‘deactivate’ a driver and cut them off from their livelihood at a moment’s notice, with no right to challenge it.

GMB and Leigh Day solicitors are challenging this in the courts – with Uber drivers joining GMB to become part of this fight, both in the courts and on the streets. We’re setting out to prove that Uber drivers are working for Uber and deserve respect and basic workers rights. The amount of control Uber exerts over the drivers means we believe they cannot be seen as self-employed.

The bottom line is that Uber can only afford its massive expansion around the world on the backs of the drivers’ work. We must make sure this means it has responsibilities to those workers.

Over the past few months in London Uber has both dropped the fares the public pay and increased the percentage commission that the largest group of drivers pay. All of this hits the amount of money the drivers earn, and currently they have little power to change this.

It’s a pattern we see in other Uber cities around the world, where driver incomes are falling, whilst Uber price-gouges to kill off better-paying competition. Companies like Uber have used the development of new technologies as a front to reinvent some of the most exploitative employment practices.

Uber drivers have no job security, no rights and no voice within the company.

This is why it is so crucial that unions such as GMB are present in the so called ‘gig economy’. Paying people for chunks of work, for tasks, rather than giving people jobs that they can develop in and become skilled at – will harm us all.

It means more insecurity, skill levels dropping and driving down pay and undercutting areas of the economy which still retain good conditions.

Black taxi drivers in the UK, and their equivalents in cities around the world, are rightly furious at the entrance into the market of this massive multinational setting out to undercut them – with seemingly unlimited funds to plough into marketing and influencing decision makers.

But at the moment people still queue round the block to sign up to drive for Uber. We need to ensure that Uber pays decent rates and invests in its drivers. This will mean a quality service for anyone getting in to any minicab or black taxi, and the peace of mind that your driver is being treated decently by their employer.

How can you help? You can make sure you are a member of a union. As well as getting protection at work – whether you are in a full time permanent job or something much more flexible or insecure – you can join the largest social movement in the country and help us all protect the most vulnerable as well as ourselves.

The best way to protect against exploitation is to give it no place to hide.

Elly Baker is trade union organiser at GMB

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