9 Jun 2023

Uber drivers hit speed bump in fight for employee rights as company granted leave to appeal Employment Court decision

7:39 pm on 9 June 2023
Greater Wellington has funded a limited number of Uber fares for people with significant needs such as the eldery while they rectify their timetable and route issues as a result of recent changes.

in October 2022, a court ruled that four Wellington Uber drivers were employees of the rideshare company, not contractors (file image). Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Global rideshare company Uber has been given the green light to appeal last year's Employment Court decision that its drivers are employees instead of contractors.

But Uber drivers say they are now more determined to fight.

In a landmark decision in October 2022, a court ruled that four Wellington Uber drivers were employees of the rideshare company, not contractors.

The ruling was a victory for unions, who were pushing for drivers to have workplace rights as employees, including earning the minimum wage, access to sick leave and holiday pay.

Now Uber has been granted leave to appeal that decision.

Wellington Uber driver Alice Karbelas said it was gutting news for drivers, who desperately needed the protections.

"Everyone's putting a brave face on because we know we just have to keep chugging along. We know that Uber will just keep pouring money into delaying tactics, and we're gutted because it just means that no change happens through that process just yet," she said.

Lower Hutt Uber driver Steve Fairley said many drivers were working 12-14 hour days to make ends meet because of the uncertainty of pay.

They were determined to keep fighting to get employee rights, he said.

"To us it's a speed hump. It's just a little blip on the radar, it's the legal process, and we are prepared for the long haul. We know that we're right, I think not only in rule of law but from a humanity standard or point of view."

In a statement, Uber New Zealand general manager Emma Foley said drivers wanted to keep their flexible working arrangements.

First Union was one of the unions who took the original case on behalf of four Uber drivers, and president Robert Reid said drivers wanted flexibility on hours, but not on rights.

"You cannot have flexibility on rights. We believe all workers should be entitled to those minimum things; sick leave, holiday, parental leave, access to KiwiSaver, they cannot and should not be taken away from workers."

Wellington employment lawyer Charles McGuinness said it would be helpful if the law was clearer in determining whether someone was a contractor or employee.

"At the moment where there may be a bit of a grey area, I think it's extremely unhelpful for employers and small businesses in particular to not have clearer guidance from the legislation."

Foley said gig workers made a valuable economic contribution, but improvements to working conditions should be achieved through legislation.

Other governments were passing laws to better protect gig workers and there was no reason New Zealand could not join them, she said.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety said in 2021 the government received a report looking at ways to improve the working conditions of contractors.

They said follow up work on this was on hold while the Uber Employment Court case was happening, because the ruling had significant implications on the legal definition of a contractor.

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