Uber Eats avoids landmark ruling on workers’ status by settling case with delivery rider
Uber has settled a high-profile case with one of its food delivery riders, avoiding a landmark ruling on whether gig economy workers are employees or contractors, experts say.
The Australian arm of the multinational company settled with former Uber Eats delivery rider Amita Gupta before the full bench of the federal court could rule on whether she was an employee or a contractor.
It would have been the first ruling in the federal court on the status of Uber’s workers.
The Transport Workers’ Union said it believed Uber had settled because the company was facing defeat after a series of critical questions from judges in a court hearing earlier in November.
Federal court judge Mordecai Bromberg said in court that Uber Eats riders “appear to be the representative of the Uber Eats”, despite the company’s protests.
“Who would the public have perceived the worker as an emanation of, if not Uber?” he asked.
“It could be anybody,” the company’s barrister, Ian Neil, replied. “There’s nothing that represents her to be an emanation of Uber, apart from the fact that she would turn up with food in her hand at the end of a process that had begun with the customer ordering the food.”
Bromberg asked: “Why would you assume, given the process … starts with Uber and ends with an Uber app, so far as the customer is concerned – why would you assume that the driver is an emanation of the restaurant [rather than Uber]?”
He continued: “Everybody knows what function Uber plays. The restaurant’s function is to prepare the food. Uber’s function is to deliver the food; isn’t that right?
“The very name Uber would convey to the ordinary person some form of transportation service; wouldn’t it?”
Neil replied: “We could not accept that.”
Labour law expert Prof Joellen Riley Munton from the University of Technology Sydney, said it appeared that Uber had “decided not to take the risk” of a court ruling, and settled.
Earlier rulings in the Fair Work Commission had sided with the tech giant, and ruled their workers were not employees. This case would have been the first ruling in the federal court.
“Uber has clearly taken the view that a federal court decision (of a full bench) finding that Ms Gupta was in fact an employee would be very disruptive of its business model,” Riley Munton said.
“The settlement means that there is still no federal court ruling on the question of whether workers like Ms Gupta are employees, so there is no precedent to disturb the Fair Work Commission findings in the Gupta case, or in earlier cases.”
The Transport Workers’ Union national secretary, Michael Kaine, said he was confident Uber would have lost.
“It is clear from the court hearing that Uber was on the ropes,” he said.
“A settlement … was the only option left to the company in the face of a potential judgment.”
However, Riley Munton said the critical comments in the hearing did not necessarily indicate how a court would have ruled.
She said the recent case of CFMMEU v Personnel Contracting Pty Lty, where a backpacker challenged whether he was an independent contractor, showed the limits of relying on comments.
“Justices Lee and Allsop were both very critical of the arrangement and said that it beggared belief that a person doing such menial work was an ‘independent contractor’, but they still decided that he was one, because they felt constrained by an earlier decision dealing with the same labour hire outfit’s contracts,” she said.
“So critical comments don’t always lead to a decision. Still, the law is still unresolved in a case like Gupta’s. They wouldn’t necessarily have any precedent that they had to follow in that case. An application of the high court authority in Hollis v Vabu Pty Ltd may well have found that she w