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Judge Finds ‘Self-Employed’ Private Hire Drivers Are “Workers Without Doubt”

A judge has ruled in favour of two private hire drivers in a claim against their employer, Northampton-based operator Bounds Taxis, challenging their employment status. The case revolved around the company’s contentious classification of their drivers as ‘self-employed’ contractors, meaning they were not entitled to paid holiday, rest breaks and national minimum wage.

Represented by employment lawyers from Hodge Jones & Allen, Mr Shafqat Shah and Mr Samuel Adjei disputed their ‘self-employed’ status, bringing proceedings against Bounds Taxis asserting they were workers. Citing the stringent rules and regulations placed on their work, the legal team argued that the high-level of control made them workers. This case follows the recent decision by the Supreme Court that Uber drivers were also workers.

Judge Postle ruled that the men should in fact be classed as workers. As workers they would be entitled to national minimum wage, holiday pay and rest breaks under relevant legislation.

Bounds Taxis is a private-hire operator and, like many such businesses, engages with workers as self-employed individuals, claiming only to provide the necessary technology, in this case an app-based system called iCabbie, through which the drivers provide their services to customers. The strategy behind this model relies on the argument that workers are able to choose their own working hours/jobs, removing any mutuality of obligation. However, the Judge recognised once again that the reality of the situation was very different.

Strict workplace rules included a mandatory induction meeting, wearing Bounds uniforms, accepting new jobs on iCabbie in a timely manner, placing company signs on their vehicles, and ensuring their vehicles were always clean to the company’s standards.

Furthermore, harsh consequences fell upon those who failed to comply. Sanctions included a ‘time-out’ from iCabbie, which meant they could not receive new jobs and therefore make money. Bounds Taxis would also carry out spot-checks on drivers using their service. Fares and discounts were set and controlled by Bounds.

The company argued that the controls they enforced were irrelevant against the drivers’ status as self-employed contractors. They argued Bounds was a provider of a service rather than an employer whose business depends on the labour of workers. This service, meaning the booking system iCabbie, Bounds Taxis argued, is offered to individual, self-employed drivers to use to run their own business, for a rental fee of £175 per week, amounting to over £9000 a year.

Any levels of control were presented as for commercial purposes only. According to Bounds Taxis, there was no integration into their business, as there would be with workers/employees.

The Judge, however, found there was clear mutuality of obligation and an expectation of work. The drivers did not market themselves, and worked exclusively for Bounds Taxis as private hire drivers in a relationship that hinged on a high level of subordination, subject to numerous obligations enforced through the use of penalties. The drivers were fully integrated into the business’ system of working by attending inductions when they joined and by logging into the app when they were working.

The win is an important step forward for drivers in the private hire industry, with clarification of worker status opening up access to fundamental rights and protections like paid holiday, national minimum wage and rest breaks. It is also adds to the case for legislative changes to be made to dismantle the precarity of the gig economy that too often goes unchallenged.

The case was backed by the ADCU (App Drivers & Couriers Union).

Yaseen Aslam, President of ADCU said:

“This case once again proves that the problem of worker abuse in the private hire sector is widespread and deeply rooted in an industry that employs more than 250,000 people nation-wide. The ADCU will not hesitate to protect our members wherever they may be and there will be plenty more similar cases to come. If the government will not enforce the law to protect the most vulnerable workers in this trade, then we will.”

Natalie Wellock and Susie Al-Qassab from Hodge Jones & Allen commented:

“We are pleased that the Tribunal has once again seen through the label of ‘self-employed contractor’ to the reality of drivers being workers. This decision should provide access to the benefits and protections private hire drivers are entitled to as workers. This case, like Uber and many others before it, shows that the advantages of gig economy work have become increasingly one-sided, leaving workers without job security or basic workplace rights. This decision further strengthens the case for an over-haul of employment status legislation which is long over-due.”

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