Chefs’ spat with Shanghai app firm points to grey area of online hiring

Experts say there is no precedent or regulation on the mainland that covers court case involving seven cooks whom customers could book over the internet

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 3:54pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 11:51pm

Seven chefs who registered with a smartphone app allowing customers to book them to cook at their homes are suing the company after it refused to admit that it hired them.

Instead, the chef-hailing operator described its relationship with the chefs as a form of “business cooperation”.

The legal battle has attracted interest, since labour lawyers and experts said there was no precedent or specific regulation on which to decide the case, given it related to a relatively new field.

Experts said they expected more labour disputes involving labour-hailing services to occur as the central government pushed its “internet plus” strategy.

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Businesses that combine internet and labour services are becoming more common, and over the past two years, customers have grown used to ordering drivers, maids, cleaners and even private chefs through apps.

On Tuesday, the Chaoyang District Court in Beijing heard the lawsuit filed by the seven chefs, which required the court to confirm that they had been hired by Good Chef App, owned by Shanghai Lekuai Information Technology Company, The Beijing News reported.

The chefs said that on some days they had to be at the company’s office from 10am to 6pm. They had to wear uniforms to clients’ homes to cook and were told to distribute advertising flyers on the street.

One of the plaintiffs, a cook surnamed Sun, said the company neither signed a labour contract with him nor paid his social insurance. Sun also said he had not received any overtime payments or been entitled to paid leave.

Sun told the court that he joined the company in April 2014 and was dismissed last October after he and some other co-workers asked the company to pay their social insurance.

He was seeking 52,000 yuan (HK$61,000) in compensation from the company.

Another chef said they were only required to show proof of identity and a physical examination certificate, but no cooking qualifications, to register with the platform.

The cooperation [between the company and chef] does not involve – directly or indirectly – a hiring relationship
Defendant’s lawyer

The company said it signed “business cooperation agreements” with its chefs. According to the agreement, chefs decide themselves whether to fulfil bookings.

They did not need to spend all their time at the office and were not “managed” by the company. The chefs earned rewards from the app through taking customers’ orders.

The company’s lawyer told the court that chefs took advantage of the app to provide “temporary” cooking services.

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“The cooperation [between the company and chef] does not involve – directly or indirectly – a hiring relationship,” the lawyer was quoted as saying.

The court has not yet announced its verdict.

Before taking the case to court, the chefs had sought labour arbitration but they were turned down by the local labour arbitration council.

A labour inspection official in Shanghai told the South China Morning Post there was only one regulation on the mainland – issued by The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in 2005 – that confirmed that a hiring relationship existed when workers did not sign contracts with employers.

The regulation does not take into consideration recent developments that allow people to hire out their labour through the internet
Labour inspector

“It’s outdated, [from when] internet technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is today,” said the official, who did not want to be named.

“The regulation does not take into consideration recent developments that allow people to hire out their labour through the internet,” he added.

He said that based on this regulation, determining whether someone was a hired employee was mainly decided by the nature of their work – whether they had to abide by management’s rules and do what the company told them to do.

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Documents could also prove that companies had paid workers’ salaries and social insurance.

The official said that signing labour contracts was a form of “rigid” employment, while the authorities had been encouraging more “flexible” arrangements, in which enterprises signed civil agreements with workers, in an effort to boost the development of the “internet plus” strategy.

Sun Fu, a labour lawyer at Beijing Haodong Law Firm, said formally hiring staff increased costs for internet companies.

“Thus it’s controversial and it’s difficult for a court to make a decision,” he said.