Uber SA drivers demand to become formal employees

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 23 Mar 2021

Following Uber’s recent announcement that it would concede employment rights to its UK drivers, its local drivers, in collaboration with attorneys from Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys and Leigh Day (London), have called on Uber SA to do the right thing and acknowledge its drivers are legally entitled to statutory employment.

The ride-hailing firm, which has had several run-ins with its driver partners in SA, is facing a lawsuit, which was filed by the attorneys in the Johannesburg Labour Court.

The claim is based on the drivers’ entitlement to rights as employees under South African legislation and will seek compensation for unpaid overtime and holiday pay.

Last week, Uber announced it would grant worker status to its 70 000 UK-based drivers in order for them to be entitled to various benefits, such as minimum wage, employee packages and other advantages.

The re-classification makes the UK the first country in the world where Uber will adopt this business model.

In a statement, the attorneys express their confidence in the South African case, saying South African employment law, with regard to what constitutes employment as opposed to independent contractor status, is very similar to UK’s employment law.

“Uber’s announcement that it would concede workers’ rights for their UK drivers is an important development for the company’s drivers in South Africa,” says Zanele Mbuyisa of Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys.

“The writing is on the wall and we call on the company to afford these rights – including compensation for unpaid overtime and holiday pay − to their drivers in SA. These drivers have suffered through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic without the right to unemployment benefits, and consistently earn less than the minimum wage.”

Furthermore, Uber operates substantially the same system in SA, with drivers using an app, which the UK Supreme Court concluded resulted in drivers’ work being “tightly defined and controlled” by Uber, according to Mbuyisa.

The e-hailing representative bodies have been battling the same wage issues for over four years, without reaching any agreement with Bolt and Uber.

Early this month, e-hailing drivers and operators protested outside the offices of the Gauteng Public Transport and Roads Infrastructure in Johannesburg, calling for government intervention.

Uber takes a 25% commission from drivers’ earnings, and charges them an additional booking fee of 3% per trip.

Due to South Africa’s income disparity, few professional drivers own the cars they drive – they instead rent them from owners, known as “partners”, and split the earnings, resulting in them taking home low wages, according to the drivers.

In an e-mail interview with ITWeb last month, Uber SA said the majority of local drivers who use the Uber app have indicated they want to work independently.

However, a spokesperson for the E-hailing Operators Interim Committee told ITWeb this morning that while being a fulltime employee has its cons, such as lack of independence, it is still better than their current hopeless situation.

“Drivers would rather be officially identified as employees in order to benefit from the labour laws and the Employment Act. As employees, drivers can join a union and they can enjoy all the benefits thereof, which include a guaranteed living wage within the gazetted eight working hours and taking their labour disputes or unfair dismissals to the CCMA or the Labour Court, which cannot happen currently under the independent contractor status,” says the spokesperson.

Uber SA’s current business model is a huge disadvantage to drivers in all aspects, he adds, “be it earnings, working conditions and lack of security – contracts can be terminated at any time”.

“Uber’s argument that it is simply an app is getting weaker by the day,” says Richard Meeran, attorney at Leigh Day.

“Their defeat in the Supreme Court in England is the company’s latest loss and is consistent with defeats it has suffered in the courts of France, Canada and Switzerland. Uber’s concessions to UK drivers are an inevitable consequence of the Supreme Court judgement, and they were left with no choice but to treat them as workers. Quite simply, Uber behaves like an employer and needs to treat its drivers as employees. It’s the right thing to do.”