Plumbing the depths in Pimlico

Submitted by Dawn on 03rd July 2018

Employment law, HR advice, HR, worker, sub-contractor, gig economy

For the last couple of weeks, the Gravitas Grapevine has been buzzing with news about Pimlico Plumbers and the Supreme Court’s recent finding against them.

Only if you’ve been completely wrapped up in the World Cup, will you have missed the news - how the famous (some might say ‘infamous’) plumbing company has lost the case brought by Gary Smith, one of their workers.

Just a minute!  Did you say ‘workers?’  Well yes I did, and of course, this is exactly the point.  The question which so vexed the court is this - 

When is a worker not a worker?  When are they a sub-contractor?  Does it even matter?  Well of course, it does matter, and it certainly matters to Gary Smith and many of his Pimlico Plumbers ‘co-workers’.  After all, as ‘workers’, they’re entitled to all kinds of rights, such as holiday entitlement and sick pay - rights which Charlie Mullins the colourful entrepreneur, who is the founder and owner of Pimlico Plumbers, is determined should be denied.

Clearing away the myth

Before we look at the nuts and bolts of the case, let’s clear up one point.  So much of the media have been reaching for the smelling salts, as we’ve read melodramatic claims, such as

‘Pimlico Plumbers loses case on employment rights in blow to gig economy.’ - The Express

‘Pimlico Plumbers has lost a court battle over the status of its workers, in the latest legal ruling on employment status in the gig economy.’ - The Guardian.

The so-called ‘gig economy’ refers to a segment of the labour market which concentrates on short term / temporary jobs and contracts.  Like a musician who goes from one gig to the next, the gig economy refers to a growing range of people who don’t have typical, stable employment, but who work as self-employment and temporary contractors. 

A worker or not a worker - that is the question

Gary Smith’s arrangement with Pimlico Plumbers had been in place for 6 years until 2011.  He challenged the firm’s view that he was self-employed and won his case at a tribunal.  Pimlico CEO, Charlie Mullins, took the decision to the Supreme Court.  Just a couple of weeks ago, this court rejected the appeal in favour of Gary Smith.

Pimlico argued Smith was an “independent contractor” rather than a worker or employee.  Gary Smith’s contention was that, although he was self-employed, his mode of working meant he was effectively an employee and therefore deserved employee rights.  So - what was it about Gary Smith’s arrangement with Pimlico Plumbers that gave him, in his eyes, and in the eyes of the court, the status of an employed ‘worker’?

Here are just a few - 

1. Gary worked from a Pimlico Plumbers branded van and wore their distinctive uniform.

2. He was expected to carry out certain administrative duties (clerical work etc)

3. Pimlico controlled how much and when he was paid

4. He was forbidden from passing his work on to a third party.

5. Pimlico Plumbers was neither his client nor his customer.

6. Overall, Gary Smith’s relationship was one of a subordinate to Pimlico Plumbers.

So, is that it?  Will all Pimlico Plumbers’ workers now be upgraded to employee status?  Will they all enjoy the same rights as conventional employees.  Not so fast.  Charlie Mullins is made of sterner stuff.  He says that the judges missed the chance to ‘bring employment law into 21st century.’  He is going to pursue his case as far as he can and promises to work with the government to rectify this ‘terrible situation’.

Meanwhile the GMB union, inspired by this case, claim to have Amazon in their sights.  Whatever, the outcome, it’s clear that employment law is embarking on uncharted waters.  Undoubtedly, we live in interesting times.

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