TAXI-booking app Uber is rarely out of the headlines, with a 2016 Employment Tribunal case in which the company lost the right to class its drivers as self-employed one of the most well-known labour law decisions of recent times.

The firm is seeking to overturn that ruling in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, with a hearing set to get under way today. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the case has come to symbolise all that is wrong with the so-called gig economy, which blurs the lines between the employed and the self-employed and erodes workers’ rights in the process.

While such businesses are seen as being highly disruptive, though, Glasgow University professor of labour law Ruth Dukes is not so convinced.

“People think the Uber model will be rolled out across all sorts of sectors - some think it will be very significant, others think not so much,” she said.

“I like to take the historical view and very interesting work has been done to show that in the taxi sector, drivers were already largely self-employed and reliant on a middle man to put them in touch with customers through a radio service.

“All that really changed was the app; it’s not that disruptive.”

Having just been awarded a €1.4 million grant from the European Research Council to conduct a five-year project entitled Work on Demand: Contracting for Work in a Changing Economy, Ms Dukes is setting out to test that theory as part of a wide-ranging study into how employment contracts have evolved and how that impacts on employers as well as workers.

A starting point for the research, which will be carried out by Ms Dukes along with two post-doctoral researchers and four PhD students, is how the labour market has changed since the post-war years when the trade unions were at their peak.

“Collective bargaining was so important in the post-war period - in the 1950s workers might not have had a paper contract because the terms were made through the trade union,” Ms Dukes said.

“Now we’ve got much more professionalised HR departments who are probably writing things down. In a way it’s become much more legalised and formalised.

“The suspicion is that from the point of view of HR what they are doing with the law is risk management and making sure their backs are covered.

“It’s also wrong to suggest that we have moved away from collective bargaining to individual bargaining - it’s not the case now that if employees are not represented by a union they are coming in and negotiating the terms of their own contract.

“HR presents a contract and asks if you will sign or not; they have the power to dictate the terms.

“I want to explore how that affects the process of contracting for work.”

While most people view work contracts in purely economic terms, Ms Dukes said the project aims to understand “contracting behaviour” in social and legal terms too.

"There will likely be economic motivations on both sides,” Ms Dukes said. “The parties will want to get the most efficient contract possible and to maximise their wealth.

“There will also be ideas of what a fair wage is, fair working hours and fair holidays. These are understandings people have through social interactions with others.

“HR managers may not think of a contract as a legal document and we want to try to understand more about what their motivations are and what their understanding of the law is - are they interpreting it with an eye to legal risk?”

The ultimate aim of developing this new methodology for studying contracting behaviour is to play a role in shaping employment law policy, something that has interested Ms Dukes right from the start of her career.

“I did labour law as an undergraduate and became immediately interested in how political it is,” she said.

How big a role she can play in this regard will depend on the outcome of the 2022 UK General Election, which will take place during the project’s final year.

Unsurprisingly, Ms Dukes feels the two main political parties would take very different approaches to revamping labour laws, with the current government “not likely to be receptive” while the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn “has shown itself to be much more open to innovations in labour law”.