The extent to which Uber will go to avoid playing by the rules is unprecedented in the Netherlands (Photo: Paul Hanaoka)
After working with people in unusual employment situations for a decade, I thought I had seen it all as a union organiser. Then I began dealing with Uber.
The extent to which Uber will go to avoid playing by the rules is unprecedented in the Netherlands.
When Uber arrived in around 2012, the majority of taxi drivers in large cities were self-employed — genuinely self-employed. They could set their own tariffs and decide what the most efficient route is and who was welcome in their taxi and who was not.
After a honeymoon period, their situation changed dramatically. Tariffs, which are now controlled by Uber, suddenly went down while the service fee paid by drivers to the company went up, and drivers could be disconnected for not accepting a ride for any reason.
It was clear they were no longer genuinely self-employed but were highly-dependent on one employer. That’s when drivers started to come to us in the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) to ask for help.
Uber had no interest in talking so, at the end of 2020, we took them to court to prove that they were the employer of these drivers and that they should abide by the collective agreement of the taxi sector, which includes a minimum wage and rights like paid leave, paid holiday and social security contributions.
Because Uber makes it more difficult than any other company — even Deliveroo — for its employees to access their own work data, we asked drivers to take screenshots of records like working hours in order to build our case.
When Uber discovered this, they made it impossible for drivers to access their hours of more than a year ago. It meant that a driver working with them since 2015, who might be owed tens of thousands of euros in unpaid wages and benefits, could no longer prove that was the case.
Often the only way to get the data is to go to court and, even then, it is delivered in a way that’s unreadable.
Despite all of the roadblocks Uber tried to put in our way, we won a landmark ruling from the Court of Amsterdam in September 2021 which said that “the legal relationship between Uber and these drivers meets all the characteristics of an employment contract.”
Finally, Uber was prepared to come to the table and we discussed over three months how, not if, they could comply with the collective agreement for the sector.
But, in December 2021 it turned out that there was no point in talking further. Uber cited a few extreme cases as evidence as to why they could not comply with the collective agreement as requested by the court.
If that wasn’t bad enough, we then discovered through the media that, while negotiations had been taking place, they had begun financing a kind of ersatz union to go out and spread misinformation to drivers.
US-style union-busting tactics
This included telling drivers they would earn less when in fact it was Uber which would need to cover more of their costs, that they could be subject to action from the Dutch tax department over bogus self-employment when in fact the only target was Uber itself, or that they would have to work nine until five every day despite the fact most normal taxi drivers are working flexibly according to demand.
Real union activists were disconnected until Uber was faced being fined for unfair dismissal. Disconnections usually happened just before the weekend, which is when drivers make most of their earnings. More recently, we have noticed that, instead of being disconnected completely, drivers who take part in protests will be offered no rides or the worst rides.
Outright lies and outright intimidation. Union busting tactics imported from the US along with the business model. All the while, Uber was spending vast sums on presenting a friendly and responsible public image.
Our experience is one of many national court cases across the continent over the rights of platform workers which show exactly why this issue needs to be deal with at European level.
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We need strong Platform Workers’ Directive that will oblige platforms respect their responsibilities as employers. Without burden for workers. Without loopholes for platforms.
If Uber is prepared to ignore the largest union in the Netherlands and even a court ruling, what chance does an individual worker stand?
How is a driver going to find the time and resources to prove in court, against Uber’s army of corporate lawyers, that they fulfil three out of seven criteria to only start the procedure to be reclassified as a worker — without any guarantee of success? And, even if they magically won, what about the thousands of other workers who aren’t so lucky?
So if Uber’s model, which is well known across Europe, can fall through the cracks of legislation, it becomes even more important to get an enforceable directive, not only to resolve Uber’s case, but for all digital work platforms where the organisation of work is still unknown and where we need to check that they also respect basic workers’ rights.
The people we represent, who work long hours to provide for their themselves and their families, need a directive which gives them a real presumption of employment or the benefits of being genuinely self-employed again.
It’s time to finally stop Uber and co making up their own rules and bring platform companies into line with the law respected by every other employer.