SMART phone technology has provided consumers with greater choice, convenience and value for money.

The ability to shop from an “app” on your phone and arrange for groceries and take-aways to be delivered within minutes, or to book a taxi, has never been easier. While new tech empowers all of us as consumers, it comes at a cost. Not a cost to big business, but to the human beings who perform the actual work.

The person who performs the job for you will often have no employment rights. Generally, they won’t be an employee under a contract of employment or meet the minimum requirements for “worker” status.

Multinationals have used their economic power to engineer a situation where workers are regarded as self-employed contractors. This minimises responsibility to workers and allows profits to be maximised.

The immorality and inequity of this power imbalance is of course why employment rights were introduced in the first place. Without such rights, the health, safety and wellbeing of workers can be placed in peril.

The food delivery business, Deliveroo, has previously been successful in persuading a tribunal and court that its riders were self-employed. The case turned on the fact Deliveroo allowed riders to substitute other riders to take their place on jobs.

Being treated as self-employed means no entitlement to the national minimum wage or paid holidays. This decision has been appealed by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) to the English Court of Appeal.

The IWGB wants to provide collective bargaining for its members but can’t because they’re not regarded as “workers” in law. The trade union is concerned about precarious working conditions and sub-minimum wage pay, as well as Covid-19 health and safety.

It also claims there are problems with the unfair termination of riders’ contracts without due process or the provision of evidence of alleged wrongdoing.

There was good news last week when the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) dismissed an appeal by Uber which claimed its taxi drivers were self-employed independent contractors. The court upheld earlier decisions that ruled Uber drivers were “workers” in terms of the 1996 Employment Rights Act – with a right to paid holidays, the national minimum wage and other protections.

Uber’s argument in a nutshell was it was only a booking agent for drivers via the Uber app. It claimed that when a ride was booked through the Uber app, a contract was made between the driver and passenger. The fare was calculated by the Uber app and paid by the passenger to Uber.

Uber deducts 20% from a taxi fare and pays the balance to the driver. It emphasised drivers were free to work when they wanted and work as much or as little as they decided. In essence it was an agent for drivers. The UKSC disagreed.

The UKSC found that the nature of the legal relationship had to be inferred from the parties’ conduct. The correct approach was to consider the purpose of the relevant employment legislation. That purpose was to give protection to vulnerable individuals who have little or no say over their pay and working conditions.

Workers are usually in a subordinate and dependent position in relation to a person or business which has control over their work. The law precluded employers, in a stronger bargaining position, from contracting-out of worker protections. The court’s decision will benefit some 40,000 Uber drivers across the UK.

Sadly, there are so many loopholes in UK employment law that businesses can use their economic power to evade responsibilities towards their workers. The European Union (EU) trade and co-operation agreement provides that the UK “must not weaken or reduce the level of employment rights in place as at December 31 2020, in a manner affecting trade or investment”.

Worryingly, this clause provides considerable wriggle room for the UK Government to dilute existing employee and workers’ rights.

Certainly, at a time when around five million UK workers need more rights, there is little likelihood this will happen. And as the EU continues to advance workers’ rights, the UK is destined to fall behind over time.

While our national minimum wage compares favourably to some EU states, that’s of zero comfort if you don’t have worker status and are treated as self-employed.

If you’re regarded as a contractor, you will also miss out on pension auto-enrolment and employer contributions.

Having to rely solely on the state pension in later years can be a grim prospect as the UK state pension compares poorly to many countries such as the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark or Ireland.

With the prospect of the Tories being in power at Westminster until at least 2024, the future for workers’ rights looks increasingly bleak.