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Has a standard contract of employment ever existed? An historical overview from the UK

BUIRA History of Industrial Relations Study Group

Has a standard contract of employment ever existed? An historical overview from the UK


17.00-18.45 Thursday 17 June 2021 (through Zoom)


The aim of this seminar is to establish the antecedents of casual employment in the history of IR in the light of the Uber case. Many people still see the full-time open-ended employment contract as 'standard', which of course it often is, but the accompanying assumption - that casual employment is somehow anomalous - is clearly misplaced. In this seminar we explore the development of both ‘standard’ and casual employment in a longer-term time frame, going back to the 19th century.


For further details or to reserve a place, please e-mail Michael Gold ( or Linda Clarke ( We’ll send you the Zoom link a few days before the seminar.
17.00-17.15: Welcome and introduction: Michael Gold and Linda Clarke (Chairs)


17.15 – 17.45: Simon Deakin

The genealogy of the contract of employment

Legal concepts are linguistic artefacts which have a function (classification for the purposes of legislation and adjudication) and a history (they are shaped by path dependent forces). The English legal term ‘employment’ has a history that helps us to understand the uses it is being put to today. A comparative overview, taking into account mainland European ‘work’ relationships (contrat de travailArbeitsverhältnis) and the US ‘ABC’ test of employment status, are also helpful for putting into perspective recent developments, including the Supreme Court judgment in Uber (Feb. 2021).


17.45 – 18.15: Noel Whiteside

Back to the Future? Forms of employment in historical perspective

This presentation re-examines assumptions about ‘standard’ employment and its prevalence. Reappraising forms of employment found in the UK since the late nineteenth century, it demonstrates how casual working practices and flexible hours characterised substantial sections of the UK economy prior to the second world. From this perspective, the 1950s and 1960s appear exceptional. The presentation concludes, with recent legal judgements, that work contracts do not necessarily reflect the realities of precarious employment; that security of job tenure does not equate to security of earnings; that official categories of labour market analysis are, at best, misleading - and that multiple problems face those who would reform the situation. For finally, what does ‘employment’ mean?


18.15 – 18.45: Discussion and Close


Our speakers:


Simon Deakin: Professor of Law at Cambridge University and Director of the Centre for Business Research ( He is co-author of Deakin and Morris on Labour Law which will appear in a new edition (the 7th) in the summer of 2021 (

Recent publications include: ‘Decoding employment status’ (2020) King’s Law Journal 31:2, 180-193,


Noel Whiteside: Professor at the University of Warwick Institute for Employment Research, an emerita Professor in sociology (Warwick) and a visiting Professor at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (University of Oxford). Her research focuses on labour markets and labour market policies in historical and comparative perspective, previously assisted by a variety of European and UK research awards. Recent publications include: ‘Casual employment and its consequences: an historical appraisal of recent labour market trends’ Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, 40, 2019: 1-26.


11th May 2021