UK plumber Gary Smith has won his case against his former employer Pimlico Plumbers in the Supreme Court, which rejected the company’s contention that Smith had been self-employed and upheld his claim to basic workers’ rights like paid leave, Jo Faragher reports at Personnel Today:
Smith’s case against Pimlico Plumbers, which has been running since 2011, is the latest in a long line of legal challenges on employment status, and “is in line with a number of recent decisions relating to gig economy workers”, according to Jeremy Coy, an associate in the employment team at law firm Russell-Cooke.
He said: “The judgment of the UK’s highest court underlines the point that simply labelling workers ‘self-employed’ does not guarantee the corresponding legal status. The nature of the relationship and the degree of bargaining power and obligation between the parties is crucial in determining workers’ rights.”
Smith had prevailed in the Court of Appeal last year, but Pimlico challenged that ruling in the high court, which took up the case in February. The company considered Smith a self-employed independent contractor, and he was described as such in his agreement with Pimlico and in his tax filings. Smith did not claim to be an “employee” of the company, but rather a “worker”—a designation specific to UK law that falls between “employee” and “contractor” and entitles an individual to certain rights like a minimum wage and paid annual leave. The Court of Appeal had ruled in Smith’s favor largely on the basis that his contract with Pimlico required him to provide his services personally, such that he could not re-subcontract the work out to someone else.
In ruling for Smith, however, the Supreme Court stressed that its decision rested on the unique facts of the case and did not establish any new legal guidelines for employers to follow in determining whether they could safely classify workers as self-employed, much to the dismay of UK employers and their attorneys:
Susannah Kintish, employment partner at Mishcon de Reya, has been leading the case for Pimlico Plumbers against Smith. She said: “This judgment does not lay down any new principles of law around worker status.
“Instead, all eyes will be on the Government as businesses await legislation on how to categorise their workforce – something that could still be a matter of years away. In the meantime, the gig economy continues to evolve and existing employment law is rendered increasingly unfit for purpose.”
The classification of workers in the gig economy has been the subject of extensive litigation in the UK over the past two years, with courts landing mostly on the side of workers, but not always. Most of these cases concern couriers, delivery workers, and drivers for ridesharing services like Uber, whereas Smith is a highly skilled worker in a specialized trade.
The government is currently considering a series of policy proposals that would update British employment law to reflect the new realities of the digital economy. These proposals would change the way workers are classified, potentially through the “worker by default” standard of employment recommended in the Independent Review of Employment Practices in the Modern Economy last year. That review also recommended renaming the “worker” classification “dependent contractor” to clarify its meaning and introducing new legal tests for classification.