Supreme Court rejects appeal from Pimlico Plumbers over workers’ rights

The Supreme Court has dismissed Pimlico Plumber’s appeal and has ruled that a plumber can be classed as a ‘worker’ rather than self employed, in a landmark ruling which will have wider implications in the gig economy

Gary Smith, who was working on a self-employed contract at Pimlico Plumbers between 25 August 2005 and 28 April 2011, claimed at an employment tribunal he was unfairly or wrongfully dismissed when he requested a switch to part time working following a heart attack.

Subsequent legal arguments focused on whether Smith was self-employed or a ‘worker’, as this had an impact on his ability to bring a case to the tribunal. Although Smith was able to refuse work, was VAT registered and was described in his contract as self employed he argued that because he wore the company’s uniform, used its van and had to follow instructions he should be classed as a worker.

As a worker Smith would be entitled to employment rights, such as holiday and sick pay.

The Supreme Court ruled that an employment tribunal was ‘entitled to conclude’ that Smith was a worker.

James Murray, Employment Associate at Kingsley Napley LLP, comments: ‘This is one of the most significant employment status decisions we have seen in the last 5 years. The question is whether it will make a practical difference for the majority of gig economy workers given the high cost of enforcing their rights.

‘Employers may tweak their contracts but they will not feel they need to alter the reality of their practices considering the Government has said it is not willing to move forward with certain of Matthew Taylor’s more game-changing proposals, for example, reversing the burden of proof in favour of workers. Parliament is also pre-occupied with Brexit for the foreseeable future.

‘A decision for lawyers, but for gig workers “Good work” is still a luxury they can rarely afford.’

This case will have a wider influence on other cases in the gig economy that are currently making their way through the courts, such as a case involving Uber which is due to be heard in the Court of Appeal later this year. Uber has previously lost other employment cases against divers who have argued that they were not self employed, but workers entitled to employment rights.

Charlie Mullins, CEO and founder of Pimlico Plumbers, said: 'This was a poor decision that will potentially leave thousands of companies, employing millions of contractors, wondering if one day soon they will get nasty surprise from a former contractor demanding more money, despite having been paid in full years ago.  It can only lead to a tsunami of claims.

'The five judges had the opportunity to drag our outdated employment law into the 21st Century, but instead they bottled the decision, and as a result thousands of companies across the UK, who use contractors in an honest and responsible way, remain exposed to huge potential claims in the future.'

Pimlico Plumbers Ltd and another (Appellants) v Smith (Respondent) [2018] UKSC 29 is here. 

Report by Amy Austin

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