What does a British court battle mean for workers' rights in the gig economy?

A British plumbing company has lost an appeal over the case of a job-to-job worker, after the Court of Appeals rejected its claim that he was an 'independent contractor.'

Stefan Wermuth/ Reuters
A Pimlico Plumbers van is parked in London, Britain on February 10, 2017.

Britain’s Court of Appeals upheld a ruling on Friday in favor of a plumber who argued that his job-to-job work for one company entitled him to employment rights, rejecting the firm’s claim that he was an “independent contractor.” The case is the latest among a wave of court cases reconsidering labor practices in the growing freelance economy.

“We are absolutely delighted,” Jacqueline McGuigan, the plaintiff's lawyer, told The Guardian on Friday. “The decision brings welcome clarity to the issue of employment status relating to work in parts of the economy.”

Gary Smith, who claims he was dismissed from work after trying to reduce his hours after a heart attack, brought the case against Pimlico Plumbers, where he worked full-time for six years. While the plumber argued that he was entitled to rights such as sick pay, the company argued that he was not because he was technically self-employed.

Yet, amid the ongoing battle over employment status in the growing "gig economy," the decision may have wider implications. About 162 million people in the United States and Europe participate in the gig economy, according to an October 2016 report by the McKinsey Global Institute. And those numbers are only poised to grow with the proliferation of apps and websites that connect short-term, flexible jobs with workers.

But the business models of these companies that rely on on-demand workers have come under scrutiny in recent years. Without recognition as full-time employees, many lack greater legal support and protections. Minimum wage, overtime pay, family and medical leave, unemployment insurance, retirement savings, health insurance, and workers' compensation for injuries at work – all were designed for people in traditional jobs.

For instance, ride-hailing service Uber, a company that has seen its own share of controversy over benefits for its drivers, has tried to claim that by not setting hours for its drivers, who also have the freedom to work for competitors, Uber drivers do not qualify as employees, and thus, do not receive benefits.

The legal landscape has slowly begun to challenge that assumption, however. In December 2015, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to approve a proposal that allows drivers of both ride-sharing services and taxi companies to unionize, giving them the power to organize and collectively bargain for pay and worker protections. In April 2016, a California judge rejected Uber's proposed $100 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought by drivers in California and Massachusetts who wanted compensation for job-related expenses. 

A London employment tribunal took action against Uber further, ruling in October that Uber drivers are “workers” and should receive national living wage and vacation pay. Though the San Francisco-based firm said it would appeal against the judgement, it was a blow to the industry’s business practice, and has opened the way for other contract workers in Britain, such as Mr. Smith, to seek compensation from the courts.

As gig-economy companies and court systems continue to battle over workers' rights through individual lawsuits, some suggest that better defined regulations that provide protections for those trying to earn honest wages are needed overall.

“It’s absurd to wait for the courts to decide all this case-by-case. We need a simpler test for determining who’s an employer and employee,” Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor and a professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, wrote in 2015. “I suggest this one: Any corporation that accounts for at least 80 percent or more of the pay someone gets, or receives from that worker at least 20 percent of his or her earnings, should be presumed to be that person’s ‘employer.’ ”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to What does a British court battle mean for workers' rights in the gig economy?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today