Downton Abbey season 5 premiere
Is Downton Abbey any different to Uber? The rise of the on-demand economy has created a servant workforce. ITV

There was a time that the landed gentry of this country had cohorts of lowly-paid people catering for their every whim. The wealthy never cooked a meal, cleaned a shirt or drove a car. How strange, then, that futuristic 21st century technology is propelling us backwards in time. The might of our technological endeavours appears to be little more than re-constructing Downton Abbey; servants as a service.

Don't fancy cooking a meal? Summon someone on the internet to cook it for you from services like Just Eat or Deliveroo and have a driver send it round.

Unable to do your own washing? There's an app for that. With hubris – seemingly unaware that home laundry services are nothing new – a London-based app claimed, "Laundrapp is a completely new service to the market," on launching last year. Someone will collect your dirty smalls, wash them, and return them freshly pressed. No need to struggle with the complexity of Daz.

There are services that will walk your dog, clean your home, deliver clothes to hotels, pack your bags, in fact just about everything your valet or maid would once have done can now be ordered up via your smartphone, as once the aristocracy could via a bell pull.

And of course for every Earl of Grantham, there are countless Mrs Patmores, Ethel Parks and Alfred Nugents to cater for their needs. But these servants live below ground, or outside the gated community, so you don't need to worry about them. Nor are they marshalled by 21st century equivalents to Downton's butler, Mr Carson, but instead automated platform companies matching cash-rich, time-poor buyers to cash-poor piece-workers, while creaming off fees.

The rise of the On Demand Economy

This 'On Demand Economy' marks a profound shift in the nature of work in our economy. So profound that last week the European Union felt it necessary to issue guidelines protecting the rights of workers in this new, and legally grey, workplace.

Proponents say it gives consumers unrivalled access to services that were previously only accessible to the wealthy elite while at the same time offering unprecedented job flexibility to casual workers. They point to the ability of parents with young children being able to fit in around the incessant demands of toddlers. Better piecework than no work.

Critics say it is destroying the social contract, shattering worker's rights and creating a new class of unter-worker. Professor Guy Standing at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, and previously with UN's International Labour Organisation, christened such workers "the precariat".

This “On Demand Economy” marks a profound shift in the nature of our work in our economy

In Standing's view they are the ones who shoulder the cost of the On Demand Economy, enjoying almost none of the benefits won by organised labour during the 20th century.

The precariat are, he wrote, "in precarious work, precarious housing and hold precarious citizenship: the perpetual part-timers, the minimum-wagers, the temporary foreign workers, the grey-market domestics paid in cash... the techno-impoverished whose piecemeal work has no office and no end."

The problem for critics of the sharing economy is that it is so damn popular

A 2015 US survey suggested some $57.6 billion in spending was generated through the On Demand Economy, small beer against US retail spending of $5 trillion, but with bête noire Uber, being valued at approximately three times the combined value of Kraft cheese and Heinz tomato ketchup — two of America's most iconic brands — it is a figure that is only going to get bigger.

Research by Arun Sundararajan, a professor at the Stern School of Business in New York, has shown, perhaps paradoxically, that it is below median wage workers who actually stand to benefit the most from the on-demand economy. Sundararajan looked at the impact of ride-sharing in San Francisco and found "peer-to-peer rental marketplaces can facilitate inclusive and higher quality consumption, empowering ownership enabled by revenues generated from marketplace supply – facilitating a more even distribution of consumer value."

He quotes a US government study that showed that more than 80% of independent contractors and self-employed workers would not choose a different employment structure.

Different continent, different rules

Europe, which has typically taken a more protective stance to the rights of workers, is not convinced. Airbnb and other services have found life difficult in many European cities.

The EU guidelines on workers' rights in the On Demand Economy state that if workers are under the direction of the platform – which determines the choice of activity, remuneration and working conditions – their work is genuine, effective and regular, and remunerated. They are seen as workers and "an employment relationship exists, EU labour and social law setting out minimum standards will apply."

The guidelines were warmly welcomed by the TUC. "The EU guidelines are a good starting point because they make clear that sharing economy companies can be recognised as employers by member states," Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said. "The UK must build on this to ensure every worker in the sharing economy gets a fair deal, full employment rights, the opportunity to join a union, and is not exploited by a distant tax-dodging tech firm."

If ride-sharing service Uber is anything to go by, expect these guidelines to be as welcome as a bucket of cold sick

If ride-sharing service Uber is anything to go by, expect these guidelines to be as welcome as a bucket of cold sick. The company has resisted giving its drivers the rights of employees. Although class-action cases in California and Massachusetts resulted in the company having to pay out $100 million to drivers, crucially Uber drivers remain independent contractors. For a company that recently scooped $3.5 billion from Saudi investors, $100 million is chump change.

Those who expected technology to be a driving force for workers' equality look likely to be disappointed.