Supreme Court dismissal of Pimlico Plumbers’ appeal offers hope – but little and late

Workers are celebrating a Supreme Court decision to grant Pimlico Plumbers' "self-employed" full workers rights. But there's still much do be done, writes Asad Rehman.

Not since the 1949 classic comedy ‘Passport to Pimlico’ has this part of London been the focus of such national interest. The case of the ‘Pimlico Plumber’ isn’t a laughing matter, however.

At its heart lies a constant battle to protect hard won worker’s gains from those looking to turn back the clock on labour rights.

They claim modern working patterns require those who labour in the ‘gig economy’ to be classified as self-employed. Conveniently, this gets employers off the hook when it comes to providing fair pay and decent conditions. It’s exploitation, and there is nothing new about that.

More than one in five workers, some 7.1 million people, now face precarious employment conditions. Denied the stability of set hours, they cannot plan their lives and may lose shifts suddenly. They are routinely denied the right to sick pay, holiday pay, to be represented by a union and even rest breaks.

The government’s own figures show that a quarter of those forced to work in the ‘gig economy’ are being denied even the statutory minimum wage, let alone the living wage needed to survive.

The case against the unscrupulous employers of ‘Pimlico Plumber’ Gary Smith, commands national attention because the whole national workforce is creaking under the weight of these exploitative practices. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled Mr. Smith was not self-employed, as his employer claimed, but was an employee who had the right to the basic workers’ rights.

It is worrying that high courts must make ruling after ruling – not even to enhance workers’ rights but simply to ensure that the basic protection are respected.

Still, the ruling will close the loophole that has allowed employers to include an employment contract clause saying that as long as you can delegate work to others, you are classified as self-employed business person, rather than the worker you really are.

And the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Pimlico Plumbers’ appeal to the Supreme Court offers even further hope.

These companies know that the deregulation of the labour market has resulted in weak enforcement, the rolling back of union rights and powerful corporate lawyers ready to challenge any worker who is able to overcome the huge obstacles that prevent them taking the employer to court and demanding their rights.

And it is the most vulnerable workers – young people, women and migrants – who not only face the worst exploitation. Employers bank on the fact that those living closest to the bread line, to homelessness or hunger, won’t risk rocking the boat.

We can celebrate this small victory and we should. But the real victory would be for people’s full rights respected from day one. It would be to end zero hour contracts and everyone being able to join a trade union without fear.

These are not radical demands. They are fundamental rights, fought and won by 19th century trade unionists.

The real story of the ‘Pimlico Plumber’ is that we live in the sixth richest country in the world – and yet we are fighting to cling on to rights won be our forebears two centuries ago.

Asad Rehman is executive director of War on Want. 

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