Plumbing the depths of Employment Law

The case of Pimlico Plumbers v Smith  – which is currently being considered by the Supreme Court – has attracted a lot of publicity for the hitherto obscure and anoraky topic of Employment Status. As is always the case, much of the media coverage is misinformed and the case is being ‘spun’ by the various parties. Since small businesses need to be clear about their employment responsibilities, it may be helpful to explain the differences.
An employee is someone who works for you under a contract of employment. Most people in most companies are employees, which is why the issue of status doesn’t arise in most organisations. Employees have a number of legal rights (e.g. unfair dismissal, notice periods, right to a redundancy payment etc). Employers pay them through a payroll after deducting tax and national insurance
Self-employed individuals are those who work on their own account – they may do work for a variety of clients (both individuals and companies). They invoice their clients and are responsible for their own tax affairs, and they can make a  profit or a loss. They have very few rights (mainly around health and safety and some limited discrimination rights).
All employees are ‘workers’. But there are also others who can be classified as “workers”. They are those who work for you under some form of agreement where they are required to undertake the work personally. Workers are entitled to fewer rights than an employee but they do still qualify for things like paid holidays, sick pay, and minimum wage. It is this group that form the basis of both the Pimlico Plumbers case and the current debate about Uber taxi drivers, Deliveroo cyclists, couriers for City Sprint etc.
To establish employment status, there are a set of legal tests that have been established. For example, who controls where and how the work is done? Can the work be passed to a ‘substitute’? Is the person ‘integrated’ into the business? Is there an expectation that work is provided and if so that the person will do it? And most importantly, even if there is a written agreement saying one thing, if what actually happens is different then this needs to be taken into account.
And because of an oddity of law, it’s perfectly possible to be a worker for the purpose of employment rights and be self-employed for tax purposes. This is what causes many of the disputes.
In Pimlico Plumbers case, the Company and Mr Smith signed an agreement that he was a self-employed plumber. It saved the company money in Employers’ National insurance and administration time, and Mr Smith paid less tax. Mr Smith however was expected to wear a Pimlico Plumbers uniform, drove to his jobs in a Pimlico van and was required to undertake a certain number of hours per week for the company. Nor could he advertise his own personal plumbing services to Pimlico’s clients. Everyone seemed happy with this arrangement until Mr Smith had a heart attack, had his agreement with Pimlico terminated and received no sick pay.
The courts so far have applied the tests based on the facts presented to them, and concluded that Mr Smith was not an employee, but that he was a worker. The Supreme Court will make the ultimate decision in due course. But the real lessons for small businesses are that:
• Trying to fiddle or fudge employment status can come back to bite you
• If the reality of the situation changes over time you need to review your agreements
• Think about why you want someone to work for you and be clear about the intended nature of your working relationship before you start the selection process.

If you want to know more about how employment law affects small businesses, in a simple, easy to read book, just click here

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