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Pimlico Plumbers case is the tip of the gig-economy iceberg

GARY SMITH’S Supreme Court victory has irked his employer, so-called celebrity plumber Charlie Mullins, but it will encourage other workers to challenge dodgy “self-employed” status they feel driven to adopt.

Mullins, the Pimlico Plumbers proprietor who recently switched political and financial allegiance from Tories to Liberal Democrats over their shared rejection of the EU referendum decision to leave, paints Smith as a bit of a wide boy rather than an exploited worker.

In his view, Smith is “a highly paid, highly skilled man who used a loophole in current employment law to set himself up for a double pay day” and Mullins cannot believe that the highest court in the land has backed his Court of Appeal decision.

The answer is that the Supreme Court, like the Court of Appeal previously, looks at specific facts that indicate whether someone is really self-employed or tied by conditions to a single employer.

Smith was not allowed, despite a Pimlico Plumbers claim to the contrary, to subcontract jobs to another plumber.

He was contracted to work a set number of hours, wear a Pimlico Plumbers uniform and drive a Pimlico Plumbers van that he had to lease from the company.

The key issue is not that Smith earned high wages sometimes or that he could reduce his tax liability by designating a room in his home as an office.

What is paramount is that he was not an independent contractor because of rules laid down by Pimlico Plumbers and Mullins.

So Mullins has no cause to look elsewhere to complain about Smith’s alleged double pay-day. He brought it on himself.

His threat to seek redress at the European Court of Justice emphasises the misplaced faith of too many trade unionists who see in EU institutions guarantees of workers’ rights.

More crucially, he and other advocates of the gig economy have been assisted by successive governments to vary employment practices creatively to maximise profits and minimise the influence of trade unions.

Practices that began in the construction industry, especially the “lump,” were prototypes of those now widespread throughout the economy, with workers posing as self-employed so that employers could claim exemption from responsibility to pay minimum wage levels or offer those they engage wages during holiday or sick absence.

The enticement to lumpers was what seemed at first to be higher pay and the possibility of lowered liability — and indeed too often blanket avoidance — of income tax and national insurance contributions, denying the government funds for public spending.

As trade union-negotiated collective agreements and conditions became less the norm and the proportion of the workforce covered by sectoral bargaining slumped from 80 per cent in 1980 to nearer 25 per cent today, such ephemeral benefits have gone.

The going rate is increasingly whatever employers offer and job security is often theoretical because trade unions must fight with one hand tied behind their backs by legal shackles.

The TUC position of suggesting reversal of the burden of proof so workers benefit from rights “unless the employer can show they are genuinely self-employed” is an interesting debating point.

It ignores the reality, however, that there is no mechanism to oblige cowboy employers to comply and nor is there any likelihood of one while Theresa May remains in Downing Street.

Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey’s reiteration that a Labour government will ensure that “all workers have equal rights from day one” confirms the necessity of speedy replacement of the Tories by a Jeremy Corbyn-led administration.

 

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