Remember the Great Hobbit Fiasco of 2010 – when John Key, Gerry Brownlee etc bowed and scraped to the lords of Warners and changed our labour laws at their request? As you’ll recall, what the studios wanted the Key government to do was to change the basis – originally set out by our Supreme Court in 2005 in the Bryson case – on which workers in the film industry are hired.
Instead of being ‘employees’ eligible for sick pay, holiday pay and other entitlements the Hollywood studios wanted New Zealand workers to be defined as ‘contractors’, whereby they would have no such rights. A supine Key government was only too happy to comply.
Well, in a fine example of legal karma, the California Labour Commission has just confirmed the basic logic of the Bryson decision.
In a landmark case involving the quasi-taxi company Uber, the Commission has found that its drivers are employees, not contractors, and ruled that Uber (now a $40 billion global business) cannot continue to maintain the fiction that it is merely offering an appliance that enables drivers to hook up with customers. Like the Hollywood studios, Uber has used and abused the “contractor” status to avoid a range of obligations that are routinely accepted as being a fair cost by employers in almost every other business sector. As USA Today explianed in its coverage of the decision:
Uber currently saddles its drivers with the bulk of expenses — including the vehicle itself, maintenance, insurance and gas — by labelling its drivers independent contractors rather than employees. If Uber is forced to treat drivers as employees, it would bear more of those costs as well as Social Security, workers compensation and other benefits, experts said.
As yet it is unclear just how sweeping the Commission’s findings will be, since nominally the ruling pertains only to the driver who brought the case. If the ruling is picked up and applied more widely – and there is little reason to doubt that it will be – this could be very damaging to Uber’s current business model:
“This ruling out of California [could] cause the financial engine behind Uber to break down because this will definitely drive up costs,” said Hayley Dryer, a labor employment attorney of Cullen and Dykman. Since it was founded in 2009, Uber has held its drivers at arms length by claiming it merely provides the technology to match them with riders. But the California Labor Commission said Uber maintains a good deal of control over its drivers, which makes it more of an employer than the “neutral technological platform” it claims to be. Uber “is involved in every aspect of the operation,” including the fares drivers charge, the model of cars they drive and, to some extent, how often they work, the commission said. Drivers also cannot negotiate how they divvy up fares with Uber, the commission said. “In light of the above, Plaintiff was Defendants’ employee,” the commission ruled.
It would be nice to think that California – the home state of Hollywood – may have finally and decisively overturned the “contractor” fiction through which the likes of Uber and the film industry continue to exploit their workers. Uber and Warners do like to portray themselves as being at the forefront of technological innovation and business excellence. Well, it’s the 21st century, guys. Maybe its time you stopped making your employees accept 19th century work conditions as the basis for keeping their jobs. Basically, if your business model depends on offloading your own legitimate costs onto your workforce, then maybe the model doesn’t deserve to endure.
Working On the Highways and By-Ways
Plenty of good songs about work. Despite a certain level of 1980s cheesiness, this 1987 version of the old Sam Cooke classic “Chain Gang” festures some fine singing by Bobby King, with Ry Cooder on guitar and Flaco Jiminez on accordion.
As white collar work songs go, I’ve also always had a soft spot for “Live From The Plantation”, Mr Lif’s hip hop revenge fantasy from 2002…