The bosses of two of Britain’s biggest delivery firms have hit back at a claim people only work for them because they are “desperate”.
Carole Woodhead, of Hermes, said most of her couriers welcomed the flexibility of being self-employed and did not want jobs.
City Sprint cycle courier boss Patrick Gallagher said he had to treat people well or they would quit.
The pair were speaking at a fringe meeting at the Tory conference.
Hermes, which has 50,000 self-employed couriers and delivers parcels for John Lewis and Next among many others, is facing an HMRC investigation into claims some of its drivers receive less than the minimum wage.
Ms Woodhead said her couriers all earned a “minimum” of £8.50 an hour, well above the minimum wage, and many earned a lot more than that.
One conference-goer challenged her claim that “nobody is exploited in my business and everybody has an opportunity to earn and earn well” – and that that would be put at risk if the government forced firms to give self-employed workers more employment rights.
He said his niece had worked for Hermes for a while and had been “horribly exploited”, adding that he suspected people only took such jobs out of “desperation” because they needed the money,
Ms Woodhead said she was “sorry” the man’s relative had felt that way, but added: “We know that most of our couriers do not want to be employed. They like the flexibility of being self-employed.
“They like the ability to choose – the number of rounds they do, the number of hours they work.”
She said a “rigid” 35 to 40 hour week would be bad news for the students, carers and parents who delivered parcels for her firm.
“It would be painfully wrong if there [were] to be changes in the legislation which meant a large number of those people were not able to access the type of flexible labour market they depend upon.”
Patrick Gallagher said moving to the “dependent contractor” system proposed by Matthew Taylor in his government-commissioned report on the gig economy, would hold back couriers who wanted to earn extra cash.
“That meritocracy where you put the effort in and you get rewards for – it goes away,” he says.
He claimed the “vast majority” of City Sprint couriers wanted “things to remain as they are”.
Addressing the man who complained about exploitation, he said: “You say desperation. It’s never been more competitive. My couriers leave and go to food fleets, food delivery fleets.
“I have to ensure they are treated fairly and paid well. If I don’t the business is over. It’s not about me, it’s about them.”
He said City Sprint had only lost one employment tribunal in its history, a reference to a courier who won the right to be classed as a worker, with access to holiday pay, sick pay and other benefits, rather than self-employed.
It was the first of four legal challenges being taken against courier companies, which include Addison Lee, Excel and E-Courier.
Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, who said he had been self-employed as a barrister, said: “If this is such an awful lifestyle why do so many people do it? Because it’s not like they don’t have a choice. Because there is a choice when you have unemployment as low as it is.”