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New court victory for self-employed

A self-employed plumber has won a legal battle for workers’ rights which could have implications for millions of people after taking the company where he’d worked for six years to court.

The Court of Appeal ruled that Pimlico Plumbers should have given Gary Smith basic workplace rights like sick pay, holiday pay and the right to bring tribunal claims even though he was technically self-employed.

Scrutiny

The outcome of the case, alongside others of a similar nature, will now be scrutinised for what it means regarding the workplace rights of millions of people employed in the so-called gig economy – where, instead of a regular wage, workers are classed as independent contractors and are paid for the ‘gigs’ they do with no protection against unfair dismissal.

In the UK, there is now an estimated five million people employed in this capacity, including couriers and ride-hailing drivers, who have no right to redundancy payments or to the national minimum wage, paid holiday or sickness pay.

Heart attack

Before suffering a heart attack, Gary Smith had worked solely for Pimlico Plumbers and drove one of its branded vans during his working hours but was registered for VAT and paid tax as a self-employed contractor.

After his illness, he wanted to cut his working hours from five days to three days a week but Pimlico Plumbers refused and took away his branded van. Mr Smith said this amounted to dismissal.

Mr Smith’s lawyer called the ruling “a resounding victory”. Despite Mr Smith’s technically independent status he had not been allowed to work for any other organisation and his work had been ‘tightly controlled’ by Pimlico Plumbers.

But the founder of Pimlico Plumbers, Mr Charlie Mullins, said he may fight on to the Supreme Court arguing that plumbers were hired on a self-employed basis using their own tools and materials and did not have employee benefits. As a result they could earn much more. He said Mr Smith had been earning £80,000 a year which would have been £40,000 on a PAYE system.

Warning

Lord Justice Underhill, one of the Appeal Court Judges who heard Mr Smith’s case, said: “Although employment lawyers will inevitably be interested in this case – the question of when a relationship is genuinely casual being a very live one at present – they should be careful about trying to draw any very general conclusions from it.”

  • Last October, 40,000 Uber drivers in England and Wales won the right to be classed as workers rather than independent contractors. Uber has launched an appeal.
  • This January, a tribunal found that Maggie Dewhurst, a courier with logistics firm City Sprint, should be classed as a worker rather than independent contractor, entitling her to basic rights.

The Government has commissioned a review to investigate workers’ rights in the gig economy looking into job security, pensions, holiday and parental leave as well as the freedoms and obligations of employers.

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