Gig economy expert Matthew Taylor warned Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on 11 October that requiring bosses to stick to rigid minimum-wage laws could eventually scupper flexible working arrangements in the UK.

The following day, the Committee heard evidence from gig economy leaders about tribunals they are involved with, in which self-employed contractors are attempting to redefine themselves as full-time workers to secure the relevant rights and benefits.

Uber head of public policy Andrew Byrne noted that 19 of the firm’s drivers are currently contesting their status. If they succeed, he stressed, the impact would be company-wide.

“If we were forced to switch all our self-employed drivers over to a working contract,” Byrne said, “that’s absolutely something the business can cope with, [but] I think it would change the nature of the relationship that we have with the drivers themselves.” He pointed out that in the event of such a ruling, Uber would have to “exert more control over the relationship between us and the driver”, including the potential imposition of a more traditional, salary-based arrangement.

Deliveroo managing director Dan Warne, whose firm is dealing with a clutch of similar tribunals, said that the issue with having to recognise contractors as workers “is that it runs against the flexibility that we currently provide through our platform”. At present, he noted, riders are “able to log in whenever they like, wherever they like – and not only that, they can work concurrently with Deliveroo and other, third-party platforms”.

In their comments, Byrne and Warne seem to be urging workers to weigh up which asset they consider the most important: employee rights, or flexibility? But is this, in the end, a false dichotomy? In the view of The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper, that is very much the case.

“Surely, flexibility has to work for both partners,” she says. “Taking into account the power dynamic that exists between these quite low-paid workers and corporations such as Uber and Deliveroo, the benefits will invariably be skewed towards the most powerful side of the relationship. On those terms, treating people well and giving them appropriate rights is not incompatible with flexibility – so I’m wondering why the two factors were presented in such a polarised way before the Committee. Why is it deemed inevitable that workers will have to be less flexible? You can work flexibly and still be recognised as an employee. Many organisations emphatically evidence that it’s not an either/or issue.”

Cooper explains: “Perhaps these firms are uncomfortable with the requirements that go alongside full-time employment, such as on-costs and administration. As such, it’s up to them to develop a way of employing these workers – if that is indeed the outcome of these tribunals – or contracting with them in a way that is fair, and ensures that both parties benefit from the arrangement. We have to think about the underlying business model here, because if flexibility, as Dan Warne presents it, means that Deliveroo riders can sign on and sign off whenever they want – does that mean that there are more drivers than are needed, or does that mean that sometimes meals don’t get delivered?

“Deliveroo must have to guarantee a minimum level of service. In that light, one has to question how many extra Deliveroo riders are required, or how many disappointed drivers there are who are unable to work the kind of hours they want to work. So perhaps flexibility doesn’t have to mean ‘whenever and wherever in a 24/7 period’. It may mean a particular, set number of days a week. Or it may mean a full-time contract.”

Cooper adds: “What is the underlying business model that makes flexibility so important, and what do these firms do to ensure that there are no gaps in their service provisions? From what I can see, there may be issues with overcapacity. Therefore, if we looked into this further, we may discover that riders are not earning significant sums of money because there aren’t enough available opportunities. I have certainly read that these types of workers need to work very hard in order to maintain a liveable level of income.

“Again, when you really examine the structure of flexible working in this gig-economy format, it’s much more likely to benefit the employer than the flexible workers themselves.”


For further thoughts on how leaders must adjust to changing circumstances, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Uber UK head Andrew Byrne giving evidence to the BEIS Committee captured from