When is an employee not an employee?

Secure jobs are in short supply in this post-crash economy, as companies like Uber and Lyft know too well

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The Independent Online

Some confessions. One: I struggle with the Jeremy Clarkson saga, not least because I may be the only male in the village who has never seen Top Gear.

Two: I use the Uber taxi service and love it. It is convenient, reliable and good value.I also feel so safe using it that I’ve opened up accounts for both my teenage daughters. How they will get home late at night is a worry of the past.

Which brings us to two legal rulings in California this past week, regarding Uber and Lyft, its chief rival. Both cases focused on whether drivers for car services like these constitute employees, who should be entitled to employee rights, or are they independent contractors?

This is crucial to what is known as the on-demand economy: not just car hire, but cleaning, laundry or shopping services, for example. If, as with Uber or Lyft, the company sets compensation rules and can hire and fire, shouldn’t the drivers be entitled to the same wage and employment rights as in other industries?

The plaintiffs argued they should get compensation for fuel and car maintenance and more. The hire firms applied to have the motions dismissed. Both were unsuccessful: there is a case to answer.

In journalism some choose to be freelance. Sadly, many more have no choice as publishers increasingly adopt a regular freelance model at the expense of full-time staff. The same is applying to so many careers, ranging from nursing to cleaners.

The argument is akin to the zero-hours contracts controversy. There are jobs, and then there are secure jobs which can be turned into careers. The latter are in short supply in the post-crash economy. On-demand services exacerbate this situation.

Workers’ rights have been hard earned over decades of struggle. But there is a new breed of entrepreneur challenging the unofficial cartels in many industries. They will not succeed without more flexible working practices. That clearly does not mean they should be able to deny workers their rights and even their very status as employees.