Gig economy: heating engineer wins claim against Pimlico Plumbers

Supreme court’s judgment sets precedent and is likely to influence other legal battles over employment status

A heating engineer has won his claim against Pimlico Plumbers, establishing that he was a worker and not self-employed in a unanimous decision by the UK’s highest court that will set a clear precedent for other gig economy disputes.

The supreme court’s judgment is likely to influence the outcome of protracted legal battles such as those involving the cab firms Uber and Addison Lee, which are in dispute with their drivers over their employment status.

Pimlico Plumbers, which lost at every stage of the legal dispute, had appealed to the UK’s highest court, arguing that those it sends out to repair leaking pipes and malfunctioning dishwashers are self-employed and not “workers”.

Workers do not enjoy the full range of employment protection rights given to full-time staff but are entitled to significant elements such as holiday pay.

The claim was brought by Gary Smith, from Kent, who worked for Pimlico Plumbers as a plumber and heating engineer for six years until 2011, when he suffered a heart attack. He claimed that his subsequent request for a three-day week was rejected, the Pimlico Plumbers van he rented was taken away and he was dismissed. The firm disputed Smith’s assertion that he was sacked because he wanted to work fewer days.

Delivering the judgment, Lord Wilson said: “Although the contract did provide him with elements of operational and financial independence, Mr Smith’s services to the company’s customers were marketed through the company.

“More importantly, its term enabled the company to exercise tight administrative control over him during his periods of work for it; to impose fierce conditions on when and how much it paid to him, which were described at one point as his wages; and to restrict his ability to compete with it for plumbing work following any termination of their relationship.

“We hold that the tribunal was entitled to conclude that the company cannot be regarded as a client or customer of Mr Smith. So Mr Smith wins the case and the [employment] tribunal can proceed to examine his claims as a worker.” Smith’s application for compensation will go back to be reconsidered by the lower court.

The judgment acknowledged that there were some aspects of Smith’s conditions that resembled self-employment, such as the entitlement to refuse work, but other aspects of the contract with Pimlico Plumbers “betrayed a grip on his economy inconsistent with his being a truly independent contractor”. These included that he wore a branded uniform, had a tracker in his branded van and carried an identity card. His contract made reference to “wages”, “gross misconduct” and “dismissal”.

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