Full Transcript: Yaseen Aslam and Kelle Howson on the landmark UK verdict in Uber v Aslam

Posted on 10.03.2021
Podcast episode 003

The following is the full transcript of episode 3 of the Fairwork podcast featuring Yaseen Aslam and Kelle Howson on the landmark UK judgement recognising Uber drivers as workers.  

On Friday the 18th of February, the Supreme Court announced its judgment on the case Uber Vs Aslam, rejecting Uber’s appeal and declaring that two of its drivers, Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, must be classified as workers. This was the end of five years of legal challenges, with Uber taking its appeal to the highest court in the land. For Yaseen Aslam, it was seven years in the making, and he finds it hard to articulate his thoughts and emotions that day.

“It was a long, hard day. I was always confident we were gonna win, but in the back of my head there was still a bit of uncertainty about what was going to happen. The Supreme Court was make or break. We’re either gonna win or we’re gonna lose, and if we lose we’re done, you know, it puts us back to square one. This is seven years of my life.”

I mean, it’s just so hard to describe it. Everything happened so quickly and so fast, but I still remember when we were watching outside and the Justice said ‘appeal dismissed’. But up to then, my mind was preoccupied, replying to calls coming in from media, and I wanted to keep myself occupied. Because we’re average people, it’s all about emotions, everything. And one of the thing is to never show weakness. Even though we had our ups and downs, it’s always about staying focused. So my way around that was not to think about it and try and keep working. But the minute we heard ‘appeal dismissed’, I looked at James quickly, like, you know, like, and then yeah. You don’t like is Yes, yeah. And we just like, yeah. But yeah, I mean, yeah, it’s just I can’t I just can’t find a word to describe it.

This is the Fair Work podcast, a dive into the life of the people working within the gig economy. This episode looks at contracts. And in it, we hear from Yaseen Aslam, the former Uber driver who successfully took them to court over his classification as a self-employed independent contractor, a ruling that has implications for the gig economy around the world. The interview for this episode took place in two parts, one before the final ruling, and one immediately after. In it, we hear Yaseen’s personal account of what its like taking on a multinational corporation, organizing gig workers in the UK, and what made him do it.

My name is Yaseen Aslam. I’m one of the claimants against Uber, a case which we filed in 2015. So I actually came into this industry back in 2006, when I was made redundant in my I.T job. Uber arrived in the UK in 2012 and that’s when I first registered with them. Yaseen was one of the first 100 drivers to sign up for the Uber platform when it first came to London. And at the time, he and many other drivers just didn’t think it would work.

“We just didn’t understand how they’re gonna do it. Without a human, how it is gonna work?” But many drivers were excited about the potential impact that these new technologies held and their ability to make the distribution of work fairer. “One of the problem we had at the traditional cab office was that there was a human controller who would dispatch jobs to you. There’s a favoritism system and what we find in this industry, is that there’s a lot of discrimination. One of the thing that really attracted people to Uber was the fact that there is no controller and you just turn the app, you work when you want, go home when you want, and it’s that element of flexibility and the freedom. I didn’t really face too much problem at the previous cab office, but there were a lot of drivers that had it hard. You’ll get a lot of controllers where they request a driver who buys them cigarettes, buys them a Doner Kebab. If you weren’t doing that, they will just make your day hard. They will give you shit jobs. The point was, if you could get the controller onside, and you’re willing to feed the controller, you will get looked after. When you come over to Uber, it is a completely different system. There’s no favoritism and stuff like that.”

In the beginning, Yaseen didn’t fully grasp the implications surrounding Uber’s use of technology, nor its potential impacts on the private hire market. “For me, it was nothing different, it was just another cab office giving me work to do. That’s the way I saw it. But the good thing about this was, I was in control, I didn’t have to tell them that I’m coming to work at this time, or I want to go home at this time. Or, you know, like someone ringing me saying, put your foot down, we’re running late, we got so many jobs waiting, hurry up. That kind of stuff, I didn’t have all that. That was, to me, a good element and that’s what attracts a lot of drivers to it. But what we found over time, is all those things, the control element started changing, we then started seeing the other side. We were running away from all these humans. But we’re now being controlled by an app technology and all these algorithms. So for example, when I picked up a passenger, he would rate me 5 stars. In order to stay on the platform, I have to maintain a high rating. So just to give you an average example, to stay on the Uber X platform, you need to have a rating of 4.4. You know, like we were getting drivers getting deactivated because someone left them bad feedback. So we’re now at mercy of the rating system. That put a pressure on us indirectly, which we didn’t realize, and we started afterwards. What we saw was that although we’re running away from the human controller, saying this is better, what we’re now seeing is a hidden human behind the app, controlling us, and doing things to make us work a certain way.”

This creeping sense of control. And the power that the app had in shaping the lives of workers would lay the groundwork for his subsequent legal case. Yaseen says there were numerous points where it became increasingly prevalent that the freedom he felt had limits.

One evening, on a busy night in London, Yaseen received a request at 1 AM to pick up three men outside a bar. “Now, they were quite drunk. As soon as they go into the car, they made some kind of racist comment towards me. I saw, because I’ve got this experience of driving and dealing with customers, you can tell. And I’d rather not go ahead if I could. It’s sort of like a gut feeling. So I knew this was going to escalate. I just was very polite to those guys and I said, ‘Look, I’m happy to drop you off wherever you want to go, but I just need you to be polite. And that’s it. So as we were driving towards Fulham high street, they just carried on giving me abuse one after another. So I knew that if I carry on driving, especially once we get out the built up areas, and if something did kick off, I was all alone. I’m in my car alone with three people, and there’s no one to help me in any way, shape, or form. So it’s always best to end the journey and stop it in an area where at least I could get some help if I needed to. So I stopped on the high street, because you’ve got cameras everywhere. So you know, you’re being watched, and everything is okay. So I told these guys that ‘I’m refusing to take you because of your behavior.’ I got out my car, and they wouldn’t leave.”

Yaseen called the police and the men finally left, after which he contacted Uber to tell them about the incident and why he canceled the trip. “Uber came back to me saying ‘you can’t do that’. Basically what they’re trying to say is that I kicked people out of my car and if I ever do it again, I will be dismissed from the platform. So there’s me trying to limit my damage and I’m getting warned. I could have got beaten up or something bad could have happened, but I just did what my gut feeling was and refused to take them further. They were welcome to pick another cab and carry on from there, but I’m getting warned for doing that.

As Yaseen became aware of the issues that many drivers were facing, he started to actively campaign for the rights of him and his fellow drivers, forming an association of drivers in 2014, before joining GMB union in 2015, but his actions didn’t go unnoticed by Uber. One day in 2015, as he began the drive from his home in High Wycombe into Central London, he reached for his phone to open the Uber app, as he had done countless times before. “I tried to log on and it wouldn’t let me. So I thought maybe it might be a problem or a glitch or something. So I carried on driving all the way into London, then I stopped again and tried again. And I kept on trying, trying. I email Uber saying, ‘look, I can’t log on what’s happening?’ I drove back home again. In my head, I was thinking, I need the money.”

“I wasn’t told that I’d been blocked from the app. I got deactivated. When I first got deactivated, I didn’t do anything wrong. I got deactivated for my campaigning. A) I needed that money financially, you know, I needed that money and B) I was like, ‘what happened? Why can’t I log in? What do I do? What did I do wrong? Did a customer make a complaint against me?’ You know, all that kind of stuff. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like you went to work and the door’s locked and there’s a chain on the lock at your workplace and you can’t get in. So I then arranged to meet one of the managers, I went into his office a week later. So the whole week, I couldn’t work. I went into Uber’s office and I had a good long chat with the manager say, look, come on, what did I do wrong? And it is more like their way of trying to intimidate me to say, look, what you’re doing is you’re making good money. You’re doing alright, so why are you causing problems? You know, you should just get on, put your head down and you’ll be okay. But if you’re going to be concerned about other drivers, you’re going to lose your access. I didn’t like the way they sort of threatened me and that was their way to sort of send me a strong message. So if anything, when I walked out that meeting, I was even more motivated to do what I was doing, you know, to help drivers because I just didn’t like the way they tried to bully me.”

Alongside the threats he received from Uber. Yaseen was spurred on by what he saw around him and the stories he heard from other drivers. He saw many of his friends be deactivated and lose all, or part, of their livelihood. But what really hit home was the massive imbalance of power between drivers and the platform, and the total lack of protections afforded to drivers in the face of countless cases of passengers abusing drivers. “What really concerned me, which was close to heart to me was there’s a lot of racist attack towards drivers, and abuse. So in a nutshell, you could sit in my car, call me whatever you want to, refer to my skin color, give me as much abuse as you want, and then at the end of the journey, you could then put a one star and write a comment saying this was the worst driver ever and I want a full refund. And there’s me that suffered all this abuse from you, and maybe even physically assaulted by you. And then Uber’s telling me, I’m going to have to give a full refund to this customer because he made a complaint. This can’t be right.”

One particular story sticks out to Yaseen, when he got a call from a driver he knew had been physically assaulted, and he drove around his house to pay him a visit.

“So I went to see this guy, who is 60 years old and who got assaulted by a passenger, late one night. And the police did come onto the scene, and he’s reported it to the police, but then Uber failed to cooperate with the police. I went to see him again down his house, and his face had swollen up. I asked him what was happening and he said, ‘look, the police can’t get hold of the passenger because Uber haven’t given him the details. Yeah, so I just don’t have the time to go and chase up the police.’ So I said, ‘look, come on. This is not right. I’ll go with you to report and push the police and try and get something done because you can’t have a person assault you and then get away with it. I mean, it’s not right. But he turned around, and it still sits in my head the way he said it, and he said it in our language; he’s the same guy, a Pakistani guy like me. And he called me ‘son’, he referred to me as son. He said, ‘son, this is part of my job. We’re gonna get punched and abused’, you know, and the way he said it, it still sits my head. Look, it is not our job to get assaulted. It’s not something we should be putting up with. A lot of people sort of live with the assumption thinking it’s okay to receive abuse, it’s okay to get physically attacked in their job, and it’s okay, but it’s not okay. And the reason they have that mindset is the lack of support from the police and lack of support from operators like Uber. They’re happy to turn a blind eye to that, they’re happy to allow that kind of abuse. And that’s what we’ve been highlighting. And that’s my passion really. So from then, every time I heard of a driver (getting attacked) I would write to Uber saying, ‘look, what action are you taking against this rider?’ They would never come back to me, but the point was, they didn’t really care. And that was the tipping point for me.”

In 2016, Yaseen and his co-claimant James Farrar launched a case in the employment tribunal, arguing that they should be classed as workers. A landmark case, which they would go on to win. Yaseen had already been trying to campaign for workers, but had reached a point where he felt legal action was the only way forward. “I was actually trying to do what I can to, you know to speak to Uber, but we were just talking to a brick wall. And like I said, it came to the stage where all the drivers that we had sort of gave up, thinking there’s nothing we could do.”

But the actual circumstances surrounding the case’s conception were largely due to a series of chance encounters. “I was speaking to a Guardian journalist at the time, he was more interested in how we were organising Uber drivers. He attended a few of our meetings, and I told him about when I got deactivated. One thing I mentioned to Uber at the time (in the meeting after I was deactivated), was that they had a problem with Transport for London, they weren’t checking document properly. So, there was an issue where TFL was turning a blind eye. So I highlighted that and said, ‘look, you shouldn’t be concerned about me, you should be concerned about what you’re licensed to do, and make sure that you’re adhering to your license condition.’ And they laughed at me, they laughed at me. So anyway, when I came out, I was speaking to this Guardian journalist, and I mentioned to him that, ‘look, you could upload a blank piece of paper as your insurance document, and no one checks it, the computer will think yes, that’s okay. You uploaded a piece of papers so we’ll assume that’s your insurance document and you can continue to work.’ So he then went and did his own independent research, and they made their own insurance company called ‘Free Now Cover’ and they managed to get a driver upload it. But I was involved in that and I got deactivated for it. So Uber then reported me to Transport for London, TFL then reported me to the police and I got arrested. I was only a whistle blower at the time! So I went into the police station, I confessed to everything. ‘Look, I didn’t do anything wrong. I had genuine insurance at the time, I had everything, you know if any fraud were committed, or any crime was committed, it was committed by Uber.’ But anyway, they decided to drop a case after six months, no charges were ever brought. But that’s where the case started. Because I was already speaking to James Farrar and we were talking to Leigh Day.” Leigh Day is the law firm who would go on to represent James and Yaseen throughout their legal case. “We were talking to Leigh Day and they looked at it and said ‘there’s definitely something here, the best thing to do is launch a case for the worker status.’ Now, when we looked at this worker status, it answered all our problems. Now there’s a bit of confusion about worker status, drivers don’t tend to understand it. So you have self-employed, then you have the employees, and then we have a limb B worker. So self-employed would be someone that has more control like a plumber, electrician, you could set your own rates. You don’t have any rights, but you know, you could subcontract your work and you actually run your own business. As an employee, you have many rights, like for example, you get sick pay, maternity, paternity, pension, unfair dismissal, all that kind of stuff. Whereas in the middle we have limb B status.”

Within UK employment law, limb B worker status is where an individual is classed as self-employed, but is involved in running someone else’s business. It operates as a halfway house allowing workers to access some of the privileges afforded to contracted employees. “Now what the limb B worker does for us, and let’s say Uber does accept the law and decided to classify us as limb B workers, is there’s three things. A) is we have the right to earn the minimum wage. B) we get holiday pay, and C) trade union recognition. That’s all it is. A what it’s done for us is its put a floor on the market. Now for me, as a driver, I don’t care whether Uber has 1 million drivers working for them. I don’t care whether they charge 10p per mile or whether they charge £4 a mile, what I care about  is what goes into my pocket. The assurance I want to get is when I go out work, (I want to know) that I’m going to come home with something, not just go out all night, be sleeping in my car, and coming back with no money.”

I asked Yaseen about how it felt that first day going into court. “Believe me, that was a nightmare for me. Because by this time everyone had left us more or less. People thought we’re just stupid people trying to fight a lost battle and nothing was ever gonna come out of this, and Uber’s going to buy the judge and all that kind of stuff. And that was the time, in June 2016, I actually went into a depression, a  breakdown. You know, mentally I wasn’t well, financially I had no source of income, I live in High Wycombe, so I had to go into London for a whole week trial. I was cross examined by Uber’s barristers. You know, and it wasn’t easy. At that time, I was thinking, you know, ‘did I really have to get myself into this? Why am I doing this?’ You know, all those kinds of questions. But we did it. I had James. James had me. So there’s two of us working together trying to fight the same cause, which really worked, and it helped. Because if I was alone, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. Maybe I walked away a long time ago. But you know, because we suffered so much financially, mentally, I felt that I had to fight. If I walk away, that’s me, I wasted my life for the last three, four years for doing what I’m doing. I need to see it through. So it wasn’t easy. It was really hard. But anyway, when we got the verdict. Damn. That’s when everything changed.”

“So don’t forget we were in court for a week, but it took about two or three months before we even got the verdict. So yeah, everyone was happy. It’s not just us, every single driver, I was getting messages from everyone saying, ‘well done man’. It’s like, finally, we managed to take on Uber. We were the first people to technically without any resources to go in there and win. And there’s Uber, they had their barristers, their solicitors, everyone telling them what to say, and we’re just average guys with no money, just enough money to get on the tube, walk into the tribunal, sit there, get cross examined, but stand our ground, and then win. You know, it’s just amazing. It’s hard to describe. But what was sad about it is knowing that Uber immediately said they’re gonna appeal. So it was like, we were really happy, but at the same time, saying, ‘look, this is not the end of it. It’s just a start of something big’.”

Yaseen and James would end up going through four separate court cases, as Uber worked its way through the appeals process. But finally, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that within UK law, James and Yaseen should be classified as limb B workers. I caught up with Yaseen, a few days after the Supreme Court verdict, and asked him about what it was like hearing that they had finally won their case, and how he felt knowing that it was finally over.

“So yeah, in that minute is was just shock. But to be honest, even though like I was happy and overjoyed, but it wasn’t until the next day that it really sunk in that, you know, we won. It just seemed like it didn’t happen. I can’t find the words because we went through hell and back over this, and it’s just like we suddenly see justice. It just seemed like it would never happen, it’s just like a miracle that suddenly it happened. But the main thing is, look, we won, we’ve done it. And it was worth it. It was worth it, because it means I can now look in my kids’ eyes. I went through a phase where I suffered depression, severe depression in 2016. I suffered financially, I contributed most of my seven years into this cause. And it wasn’t a waste of time, but at the same time, is just, there’s nothing better than knowing that you have something to show for it. And that is the most important thing. It’s like, you go into a fight, you train, you train and you train before you go into that fight. You don’t know if you’re gonna win 100%, but you train your hardest. And that was us, we trained, we won at every round. We knocked them out, we knocked Uber. And that’s the main thing. You know, there were times during the last seven years where I was down, and I did question myself, like, why am I doing this? Don’t forget, I left the trade. And why am I doing this? But then again, I owe it to the drivers’ community because, even though I started this myself back in the day, you know, they’re the ones that were behind me. It’s the people within ADCU.” ADCU – App Drivers and Couriers Union – is the name of the Union started by James and Yaseen last year to represent private hire drivers and couriers. “You know, it’s the people within ADCU that joined, because everyone talks about drivers not being organized, because they’re isolated, whatever, but we actually smashed apart. And since Friday, we’re just like signing up 200 people a day (to the union), and that shows that people are no longer afraid. Workers finally know that, as long as you’re willing to fight this, there is justice there.”

Thanks to Yaseen Aslam for sharing his story. A key question surrounding this case is what are the potential ramifications of this ruling for Uber drivers and workers in the entire gig economy? Kelly Howson is a postdoctoral researcher at Fairwork.

“I think there are a few implications and to a certain extent, we need to wait and see how things are going to play out. Uber can do one of two things. Now, they can give the drivers more control over their rates of pay, their working hours, their contracts, in order to actually meet the criteria for being self-employed, or they need to comply with the regulations and protections for workers. And my understanding is that there are a lot of driver cases pending now. So there is something like 15,000 cases where drivers are waiting for compensation from Uber now that this ruling has been made. So Uber is in a position of potentially having to pay out quite a lot of money as a result of this ruling. Even though Uber is claiming that this ruling only applies to a small number of workers who were directly involved in this case and worked for Uber in 2016, it’s pretty clear that it has much broader implications for Uber drivers now, and beyond that for other workers and the gig economy at large. There are many, many gig economy companies in the UK who have very similar models to that of Uber where they classify their work as a self-employed, and that extends beyond the taxi and E hailing sector, to domestic work, care work, and even remote work done via web based platforms. So a lot of workers in those industries might now be looking at the outcome of this case, and be encouraged to bring similar litigation against the platforms that they work for. So I think a lot of large gig economy companies in the UK including Deliveroo, who has been the subject of similar litigation in the past, will be looking at this and considering the implications for them. But in terms of the immediate implications of classifying workers Uber drivers as workers, or forcing Uber to address the misclassification of workers, is that those drivers will now be subject to really important basic protections that should characterize all work. And those include minimum wage and holiday pay. And the unanimous decision that the Supreme Court made in favor of these drivers is a huge step forward in providing very basic, but very important, protections for Uber drivers, and potentially for other gig workers in the future.”

However, the flipside of this judgment is the uncertainty surrounding how Uber itself will respond. “Well, we’ve seen some commentators arguing that this signals the legal end of the road for Uber’s labor practices, but I think that it’s really important to be a bit cautious about making those kinds of claims, because around the world, we’ve seen Uber deploying very innovative strategies to evade regulation where they have been subject to regulation that threatens to undermine their business model. We’ve seen two quite recent examples of this. One is their response to the AB-5 legislation in California, which introduced a higher statutory test for what constitutes an employee, and would have classified Uber drivers and other gig workers as employees. In response, Uber alongside a few other big gig economy platforms, including Lyft introduced a ballot measure ‘Proposition 22’, which represented a kind of intermediate regulatory ground, where gig workers weren’t subject to the same level of protections as employees, but had some concessions, some limited benefits. This was a way of enshrining the independent contractor status of gig workers and Uber put a lot of money behind that campaign, a huge amount of lobbying, a huge amount of resources, in order to get that ballot measure passed. Now, the European Commission is launching a consultation just this week, on regulating platform work, to try to address some of the unfairness and vulnerability and precariousness that platform workers have been subject to, and this is this has been really starkly highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. So ahead of the launch of this consultation, Uber released a white paper about regulation in Europe, regulation of platform work in Europe, essentially arguing for a similar thing to what they did in California. The white paper is framed within building a partnership for a fairer future of platform work. But what it’s really arguing for is a new regulation, which would, again, kind of enshrine and codify this model of independent work and create a class of workers – well, the class of workers has already been created – but perpetuate the race to the bottom for labor standards essentially. So this is a really significant decision which might optimistically be a tipping point for addressing unfair practices in the platform economy, encouraging more and more workers to stand up against misclassification in other sectors and other countries. However, the other possibility is a doubling down of platform companies attempts to lobby to change regulations in order to continue their business practices which leave more and more workers worldwide, kind of dependent on these precarious situations and dependent on platforms which have all the control over the work, working conditions and over their livelihoods. And that’s really what the Supreme Court identified, in their ruling.”

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