Uber SA responds to lawsuit: ‘Drivers want independence’

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Ride-hailing firm Uber SA has responded to the recently launched class-action lawsuit to be filed against it, saying the vast majority of its drivers “want to work independently”.

The ride-hailing firm, which has had several run-ins with its driver partners in SA, is facing a lawsuit from Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys (Johannesburg), assisted by Leigh Day (London), which is to be filed in the Johannesburg Labour Court.

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

The law firms say the claim follows a decision by the UK Supreme Court on 19 February that Uber drivers should be legally classified as workers rather than independent contractors, and as such, are entitled to similar benefits.

Due to South Africa’s income disparity, few professional drivers actually 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, the law firms say.

In October last year, e-hailing drivers staged a national strike, calling on the South African government to regulate the e-hailing industry. In that industrial action, the drivers wanted to highlight exploitation as well as low wages in the industry.

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

“We’ve already made significant changes to our app to ensure we support this [independence], including through Partner Injury Protection, new safety features, and access to quality and affordable private healthcare cover for drivers and their families, voluntarily,” says an Uber SA spokesperson.

The company says it continues to do as much as possible to enhance the earnings potential of drivers, and leverage innovative offerings like fuel rewards, vehicle maintenance and other special offers to help them.

“At a time when we need more jobs, not fewer, we believe Uber and other platforms can be a bridge to a sustainable economic recovery. Uber has already produced thousands of sustainable economic opportunities. This is testament to the appeal of the Uber business model, which provides drivers with an independent status while allowing them to develop and expand their businesses.”

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

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

Leigh Day represented the UK Uber drivers in a similar case in which the lower courts, including the English Court of Appeal, also ruled in favour of the drivers, saying they must be treated as workers rather than self-employed.

In 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled Uber was a transportation company rather than a digital one, forcing it to abide by national transport laws.

Responding to ITWeb’s questions about how the recent UK ruling may affect the South African case, Uber said: “The judgement does not reclassify all UK drivers as workers. This legal case assessed the Uber app as it was in 2016 and therefore does not take into account the substantial changes made to the business since then.”

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