UK court rules plumber is a 'worker' in landmark gig economy case

The UK’s highest court has ruled that a plumber can be classed as a “worker” rather than “self employed”, in a landmark case that will have wider ramifications for thousands of gig economy workers.

The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a tradesman working for Pimlico Plumbers could be classed as a worker rather than an independent contractor, and was therefore entitled to certain benefits.

Gary Smith, the plumber who brought the case, had worked for Pimlico Plumbers over a five-year period. He claimed that he should be classed as a worker because he wore the company’s uniform, used its branded van and followed instructions from its control room. While he was described in his contract as self employed, Mr Smith claimed he was a worker entitled to holiday pay, and protection against disability discrimination and unauthorised wage deduction.

Lord Wilson, a justice of the Supreme Court, said Mr Smith should be classed as a worker because Pimlico’s contract “enabled the company to exercise tight administrative control” over Mr Smith and “impose fierce conditions on when and how much it paid to him”.

The decision marks the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on the “gig economy”, and sets a legal precedent that will influence lower courts in similar cases.

One case, involving two Uber drivers who claim they are not self employed and are therefore entitled to the minimum wage, will be heard by the Court of Appeal later this year.

Employment tribunals have also ruled that other taxi and delivery companies, including Addison Lee, have wrongly classed their drivers as self employed.

Charlie Mullins, chief executive of Pimlico Plumbers, said on Wednesday that he was “disappointed” and “disgusted” with the decision.

“This was a poor decision that will potentially leave thousands of companies, employing millions of contractors, wondering if one day soon they will get a nasty surprise from a former contractor demanding more money.

“It can only lead to a tsunami of claims.”

But Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, welcomed the decision, saying it was “time to end the Wild West in the gig economy”.

However, some legal experts questioned whether employers would overhaul their practices or just tweak existing contracts following the ruling. Others asked whether the justices had been too specific in their decision.

Alan Lewis, partner at Irwin Mitchell, said the ruling did not make broader comments on the gig economy and other similar cases “will continue to be argued on their specific facts”.

“For businesses that rely on self employed contracts that means further uncertainty,” he added.

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