Uber faces legal threat in South Africa after UK ruling

London-based law firm Leigh Day and Johannesburg-based Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys say that ride-sharing giant Uber should ‘do the right thing’ and acknowledge that its South African drivers are legally entitled to statutory employment rights.

On Tuesday (16 March), Uber said it would adopt a different model for its drivers in the UK after losing a watershed ruling in Britain’s Supreme Court.

The company agreed to reclassify all of its 70,000 drivers in the country as “workers,” which are guaranteed specific benefits under UK law.

Leigh Day represented the UK Uber drivers in the Supreme Court case in which the lower courts, including the English Court of Appeal, also ruled in favour of the drivers.

The two firms announced in February that they are preparing a class action to be filed in the Johannesburg Labour Court against Uber BV and Uber SA on behalf of South African Uber drivers.

The claim is to be based on the drivers’ entitlement to rights as employees under South African legislation.

“South African employment law, with regard to what constitutes employment as opposed to independent contractor status, is very similar to UK employment law,” the firms said.

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

The firms said that some Uber drivers in South Africa earn less than the minimum wage, meaning that Uber drivers across the country work incredibly long hours just to make ends meet.

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

“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 South Africa.”

Mbuyisa said that 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.

“Uber’s argument that it is simply an app is getting weaker by the day,” said Richard Meeran of 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 judgment, 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.”

Watch: Business Talk – In conversation with Uber’s Frans Hiemstra

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Uber faces legal threat in South Africa after UK ruling