IT’S been described the fastest growing company in world history. Founded just seven years ago, it now operates in in more than 500 cities and has been valued at over $50 billion. Based on the dictionary definition — “a superlative example of its kind” — Uber has certainly lived up to its name.

The rise of the digital economy might seem like we’re on the verge of an exciting new world, where the consumer is supreme – and young entrepreneurs can leapfrog businesses which have been household names for generations. But last week’s court case in London shone a spotlight into the dark recesses of online wizardry.

Uber – and a vast array of companies which operate on a similar business model – expertly conceal the fact that they have managed to take exploitation to a new level that would turn their old-style fat bosses green with envy.

Taxi customers can just click on the Uber icon on their phone and – hey presto! – a taxi appears. The slick functionality of the app manages to obscure the existence of the real people driving those taxis and delivering services to the public. Indeed, the driver becomes a moving icon on screen, while the customer decides whether to choose to have the UberX, UberXL or Uberlux “experience”.

Quick and convenient, like contactless payments, the fare leaves your bank account without even having to touch a human palm.

The merging of virtual and real worlds can allow us all to dissociate from the parasitic and destructive impact that these companies can have. Uber has taken that to extremes, hiding behind technology to deny that its drivers, whom they control and direct, are “workers”.

Last week’s Employment Tribunal mighty have seemed, on the face of it, a dry debate over the ins and outs of the Employment Rights Act 1996 – of importance only to those directly involved. But it exposed what the judgment called “the remarkable lengths” Uber had gone to to avoid meeting the responsibilities and costs that go with employing workers — specifically minimum wage and working-time legislation.

In its submissions to the Employment Tribunal, the company claimed that it’s business is technology rather than transportation – even though it’s profits come from skimming 25 per cent from every fare paid to its army of drivers.

The tribunal judge referred to another judgment against Uber in North California, driving a coach and horses through its charade: “Uber is no more a technology company than Yellow Cab is a technology company because it uses CB radios to dispatch taxi cabs.”

Uber tried to claim that it was merely providing a “platform” and “leads” to a network of self-employed people carrying on individual businesses of their own. But the Tribunal blasted them. “The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common platform is to our minds faintly ridiculous.”

Because of the tribunal decision, two drivers, Yaseem Aslam and James Farrar, will be entitled to the minimum wage, holiday pay and other entitlements.

The GMB, who supported the action, see the judgment as a “monumental victory” in the battle against bogus self-employment and “the most important employment law decision of the decade”. An uber triumph for the workers, if you like.

The impetus to create self-employment is all about profits – and weakening the collective strength that workers gain from being a group rather than atomised individuals.

Thatcher deliberately set about dismantling the power bases of working-class organisation in the 1980s and 1990s. Part of that involved deregulating the construction industry to enable a housing boom.

Two thirds of construction workers became “self-employed”. To this day over half of construction workers are self-employed. So, we have the absurd situation of hundreds of labourers, brickies and joiners on a single major construction site each running their own individual businesses. A similar process took over journalism, hairdressing and numerous other trades and service industries.

Paying people for their labour in a “contract of service” brings too many overheads that interfere with profits – things like pension entitlement, holiday pay, and maternity leave. All the things that workers have battled for and won over decades can be ripped up by calling the sale of labour a “contract for services”.

The new “gig” economies are using technology to carry out that process on a global scale, free from all geographical or political constraints. Creating the illusion of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of small business contracting individually with one huge corporation like Uber, Deliveroo or Amazon Prime Now is worth big money. Uber says it contracts with 40,000 small businesses in the UK – rather than admit it employs 40,000 drivers.

Uber says that consumer demand drives their business model. All we want, in their view, is cheaper fares. And if that means driving long-established taxi drivers and firms to the wall, so be it.

Their philosophy sees us all as greedy, selfish consumers who live in a virtual world dominated by our smartphones.

No one wants to halt the march of communications technology. But when the dog-eat-dog world of the new digital giants merges with globalisation and deregulation, livelihoods will be wiped out en masse and inequality will soar through the stratosphere.

So, when you look at the icon on your smartphone tracking your chauffeur or your delivery, just imagine that one day that might be you. Then delete the app – and phone a human being on a switchboard.