Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

London — Uber Technologies has said its UK drivers would face broad changes if required to be classified as employees with benefits, a sign the company is considering alternatives to its labour model amid tighter scrutiny from regulators.

Uber would become more like a private-hire car service that exerts more control over when and where drivers work, Andrew Byrne, the head of public policy for Uber in the UK told a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday.

The statement was a rare instance in which Uber said how it may adjust if a government implements new labour laws, a threat the company’s business is facing in various cities around the world. "It would change the nature of the relationship we would have with drivers," he said, adding that classifying drivers as employees would add "tens of millions" in additional costs, including national health insurance taxes, and paying for covering minimum pay, sick and vacation time, as well as maternity and paternity leave.

The company generated $1.75bn in adjusted net revenue in the second quarter of this year, up 17% from the prior quarter. Uber narrowed losses by 9% to $645m, based on financial results provided by the company.

Gig economy

The worker debate goes to the heart of Uber’s business model. The company has relied on a network of workers who log-on through an app without much oversight from the company, arguing it shouldn’t have to classify drivers as workers because it’s a platform that connects drivers with people seeking a ride.

Presently, as long as a driver has a private-hire driving licence and proof of insurance registered with Uber, they can log into the app to pick up passengers. Byrne indicated that flexibility would erode if drivers are classified as employees, saying that drivers earn about £15 ($19.80) an hour, though this doesn’t include the cost of fuel, insurance or car payments. The company said it couldn’t ensure drivers earn more than the minimum wage of £7.50 an hour after those deductions are made.

UK policy makers are exploring new regulations for the so-called gig economy in which workers set their own hours at companies such as Uber, but are classified as self-employed contractors rather than staff members entitled to benefits. A UK government report published earlier this year concluded a better balance needed to ensure workers aren’t exploited, while also maintaining the flexibility many say they like about joining Uber and similar firms.

The report recommends more assurances for workers, including minimum pay and vacation time, as well as requiring companies to pay taxes for "dependent contractors" to cover government benefits.

Critics of the Uber model, including many taxi companies that have lost business as people have signed up to drive, say the companies are exploiting labour laws and other regulations to keep costs low and grow quickly. After hearing complaints from a group of Uber drivers, a UK employment tribunal also is deciding whether the company must provide more stable pay and benefits.

Driver safety

Uber also faced questions about the safety risk of drivers on the road working long shifts. The company said it’s testing a function that would block drivers from using the app if they drove more than a maximum of driving 10 or 12 hours in a 24 hour period. Roughly a quarter of Uber drivers in the UK work more than 40 hours a week, the company said.

The hearing highlights the multiple ways Uber’s business is under scrutiny in the UK. London transportation authorities revoked Uber’s licence last month saying the company hasn’t properly reported crimes or conducted adequate background checks, concluding the firm doesn’t pass the "fit and proper" test to operate.

The Independent Workers Union criticised regulators for not citing treatment of workers among the reason the city revoked Uber’s taxi licence last month. A group of Uber drivers have been pushing the government to force the company to adopt more worker protections, including minimum wage and pay for vacation and sick time.

Bloomberg

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