Freelance plumber wins workers' rights in Supreme Court ruling

A freelance plumber has won a landmark case on workers’ rights in the Supreme Court with potentially huge significance for freelance workers across the country.

Self-employed plumber Gary Smith, who worked exclusively for Pimlico Plumbers for six years, was found to have been entitled to workers’ right, in spite of being VAT-registered and paying self-employed tax.

The Supreme Court ruled that an employment tribunal was “entitled to conclude” that Mr Smith was a worker and therefore eligible for employment rights, such as holiday and sick pay. This upholds an earlier Court of Appeal decision.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could have a profound impact for the estimated 4.8 million self-employed workers in the UK, most of who do not currently receive the benefits associated with being classified as workers of the businesses they work for.

Charlie Mullins, chief executive of Pimlico Plumbers said he was "disgusted by the approach taken to this case by the highest court in the United Kingdom".

"This was a poor decision that will potentially leave thousands of companies, employing millions of contractors, wondering if one day soon they will get nasty surprise from a former contractor demanding more money, despite having been paid in full years ago,” he added.

Mr Mullins also claimed the Supreme Court ruling would " lead to a tsunami of claims."

The ruling means that Mr Smith now has the right to take action at an employment tribunal against Pimlico Plumbers in relation to a claim that he was unfairly dismissed by the company.

The legal battle between Mr Smith and Pimlico Plumbers goes back to 2011, when the plumber wanted to reduce his working hours following a heart attack. Mr Smith requested to reduce the number of days a week he worked for Pimlico Plumbers from five to three. However, the firm refused and took away the company branded van the plumber had hired from them. Mr Smith claims he was effectively dismissed, something Pimlico Plumbers denies.

In making its decision about Gary Smith’s entitlement to workers’ rights, the Supreme Court made reference to a number of features of the plumber’s employment, including that his contract specified a minimum number of hours per week he must work and that Mr Smith “must do the work himself”.

The Court also found that the company exercised “tight administrative control” over Mr Smith and required him to wear a company-branded uniform and lease one of its branded vans fitted with a GPS tracker.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, called the judgment "one of biggest decisions ever made by the courts on workers’ rights".

Ms Hilsenrath explained: “If you wear the uniform, if you drive the branded vehicle, if you only work for one business, you are employed.  That means you are entitled to the appropriate protections and adjustments which go with the job, to enable you to work safely and productively. Everyone has the right to a healthy working environment and to that end businesses need to recognise their duties to their workers.”

The issue of workers rights for the self-employed has been increasingly high profile in recent years, with delivery firm DPD recently agreeing to offer freelance couriers the right to be classified as workers following the scandal over the death of one of their drivers in January 2017. Companies like Uber and Deliveroo, who rely on the self-employed, have also faced calls to provide greater rights and benefits to their freelance workers.

While the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Pimlico Plumbers case is significant, it is important to note that different companies work with freelancers under various different rules. This means that, while self-employed workers may be encouraged to take action to secure workers’ rights where they feel they should be entitled to them, there is no guarantee of success. It is therefore essential to have the right legal advice and support to maximise your chances of a positive outcome.

For expert help with workers’ rights or any other issues related to employment law, please contact Janine Bryant.