Landmark case for the gig economy? Probably not

Charlie Mullins' Supreme Court case poses some important questions for the gig economy, but real clarity is likely to be far away.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 20 Feb 2018

Let’s face it, the battle over the gig economy is starting to drag on. Uber and Deliveroo have both had their share of legal clashes, but it's Pimlico Plumbers that has finally taken the issue to the Supreme Court, in what could be a landmark case.

Charlie Mullins, the owner of the London-based plumbing firm, is appealing the ruling of lesser courts in 2017 that Gary Smith, a self-employed contractor who worked for the firm for five years, is entitled to claim ‘worker’ status and therefore subject to additional workplace protections.

Smith claims he was dismissed following a wish to reduce his working days from five to three after suffering a heart attack in 2010 and wants to bring legal claims against Pimlico; something that he has a right to do if he is a worker but not if he's self-employed.

Important questions

The outcome of the case, which is the first time the Supreme Court has considered workers’ rights within the context of the ' so called gig economy', poses some important questions for employers.

When is a self-employed contractor really a worker? Lesser courts in the Pimlico case judged that Smith should be classed as a worker due to the level of control exerted by the firm over his employment, namely using a branded van during assignments and an obligation to work a minimum number of hours. But does this automatically mean he is a worker?

Does it matter how much they're paid, or whose uniform they wear? Mullins believes there's a clear difference between Pimlico’s self-employed, highly skilled and well-paid tradesmen and Uber drivers. Smith worked solely for Pimlico during his time there and was paid a substantial wage for his service. Should someone who is largely dependant on work from one single company be subject to greater protections than a self-employed person working for multiple employers?

In a 2017 interview with MT, Mullins highlighted: ‘They’re skilled workers, which means they could leave us and get a job the next day.’

Do we need a new classification of worker? The UK Government defines the main types of employment as: employee, worker and self-employed or contractor.

The government-commissioned 2017 Taylor Review into employment practices recommended the categorisation of a new type of employment status, that of the dependant contractor (people who prefer flexible working, but whose dependency on one employer is legally recognised, with additional protections attached).

However, the government has thus far committed to implement almost all of Taylor's recommendations except this one. 

Clarity is a long way off

The gig economy has brought substantial changes to employment practices for hundreds of companies and many thousands of workers (or should that be self-employed contractors?). Unsurprisingly, the regulatory regime has not been able to keep pace with those changes.

Clarity is sorely needed. The government looks like it favours the flexibility that gig work offers, with most of its proposals concerned with strengthening worker rights as opposed to self-employed rights, and with little effort to change how those two categories are defined.

But as actual legislation coming from the Taylor Review recommendations will be some time off, that clarity will need to come from the courts.

Previous cases of this type tend to fall in the favour of the worker, so MT is not anticipating a change. Whatever the outcome, the case could at last provide the start of some much needed precedent. Watch this space.

Image credit: Ms Jane Campbell /


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