Pimlico Plumbers case: another blow to the gig economy?

Charlie Mullins has lost his appeal, but the future of flexible working is still in play.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2018

In what some are claiming as a blow to businesses relying on flexible ‘gig’ workers, the Supreme court has ruled in favour of a plumber who claimed he was entitled to additional workplace protections.

Pimlico Plumbers founder Charlie Mullins had appealed a ruling in lesser courts that Gary Smith was entitled to additional protections under ‘worker’ status, claiming instead that he was a self-employed contractor.

Smith had worked solely for Pimlico Plumbers for six years, was registered for VAT and paying tax as a self-employed person, but brought legal claims against Pimlico on the basis that he was unfairly dismissed following a wish to reduce his working days from five to three after suffering a heart attack in 2010. 

Now that Smith has been declared as a ‘worker’, he is able to take his claims against Pimlico to an employment tribunal.

Unsurprisingly, when approached for comment Mullins told MT that he was ‘disappointed’ with the decision that missed out on an opportunity to bring UK employment laws into the 21st century. ‘This could possibly send a lot of companies out of business and affect the economy financially,’ he said.

So what does it mean?

The issue of gig workers’ rights is a complex one, so it’s unclear that this ruling will set a blanket precedent. Uber drivers, Deliveroo riders and Pimlico plumbers are not the same thing, and indeed there are other cases still ongoing with respect to other employers. Uber, for example, is looking to overturn a decision that backed two drivers as workers at the Court of Appeal in October.

The direction of travel is fairly clear, however. The courts are largely agreeing with those insisting on a definition of gig workers that affords more rights. Whether there’s one strong precedent or several smaller but related ones, this will surely start to have an impact on the flexible economy in the UK.

In the near future this is unlikely to extend beyond a careful rewording of contracts, but long term there is a challenge mounting to a lot of companies’ business models.

Exactly how severe this threat will be depends both on the courts and on the government, which has already embraced all 52 of the recommendations put forward by the Taylor Review into Modern Working Practices, except for the most radical suggestion, the creation of a new status of dependant contractor (a flexible worker whose dependence on a single employer is recognised, with the protections that entails).

Mullins told MT that he thinks it's time for the government to do more. ‘I'd like to work with the government and clarify the way that we go forward, because this is going to affect 4.8 million subcontractors,' he says. 'At any time they can get a knock on their door or a letter through their door claiming workers rights which is crazy.'

There are plenty on the other hand who would say such an event would be long overdue. In either case, while the government continues to consult on the issue, it appears to have more pressing, Brexit-shaped priorities. The result is that definitive clarity on who’s entitled to what rights remains some way off, which is surely to our collective detriment.

Image credit:  Ms Jane Campbell/Shutterstock


Stephen Jones recommends

Gig workers need more rights

Read more

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime