Lawyer brands opponent a ‘luddite’ in heated debate on modern working practices

Gig economy employers like Uber are less about “exploitation’ of workers’ rights” and more about “embracing technological change”, a barrister who has represented the ride-sharing app has said.

Speaking at a heated debate hosted by London HR Connection earlier this week, David Reade QC of Littleton Chambers, who recently acted for Uber in a tribunal brought by three drivers over worker status, faced off against Jason Galbraith-Marten QC, who practices at Cloisters and successfully represented cycle courier Maggie Dewhurst in a tribunal against City Sprint.

“The truth is he's a luddite,” Reade said of his opponent. “He's dragging you back, he's dragging you back to an economic past which doesn't exist anymore.”

Reade added: “You've picked the wrong target if you think [these] businesses are about exploitation. They're about embracing technological change.”

Galbraith-Marten hit back, saying self-employment was only truly lucrative for a fortunate few. He noted that, while he knew of a talented young IT contractor who was flying first class as he spoke, “the reality is, for most people in this new world of work, they're unlikely ever to enjoy the flatbed comforts on a flight to Australia”.

Galbraith-Marten remarked that many of those in the gig economy who had been promised flexibility in return for self-employment were not actually benefitting from this in practice, and added many employees and workers now enjoy flexible working anyway.  “We don't need to sacrifice employment law rights in order to gain that flexibility… It's a false trade-off,” he said.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures released earlier this week revealed there were 4.8mn self-employed people in the UK at the end of April, the equivalent of 15 per cent of people in work.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, is currently heading up an eponymous governmental review into modern working practices, which is likely to cover the gig economy. It is due to be published later this month.

Meanwhile, a report released last month by the influential Work and Pensions Select Committee accused businesses of duping people into self-employment under the pretence that it was the only way to maintain a flexible working life.

However, Reade expressed cynicism that the recent drive for worker status was actually a disguised attempt to secure more tax revenue, as the self-employed generally pay less tax. He cited statistics that suggested most self-employed people were accountants, lawyers and other white-collar professionals, rather than the bicycle couriers and taxi drivers who were generating the headlines.

 “There seems to be quite a lot of interest about this topic generated by what is a relatively small group of people,” he added.

Last October, an employment tribunal decided Uber’s drivers were workers rather than self-employed. The case is now scheduled for appeal in September.

In January, a tribunal ruled that Dewhurst should be classified as a worker. Galbraith-Marten noted the case was likely to go before the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) before the end of the year.

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