Self-employment: protecting the equality rights of self-employed people

Pimlico Plumbers and another v Smith

We know that some companies have people working for them who are technically self-employed.

This meant that thousands of workers did not enjoy some of the employment rights and protections that employees do.  

We supported a man who had worked on a self-employed basis for the same firm for six years.

When the firm refused to make adjustments to his work after a heart attack, he successfully took his disability discrimination case to the Employment Tribunal.

The firm appealed, arguing that the man was not protected by the Equality Act 2010.

Legal issue

What is the scope of protection from discrimination for workers who are labelled as technically self-employed but who are, in fact, under the close control of a company?


A man worked for a plumbing firm from 2005 until 2011. Although technically self-employed, he didn’t work for anyone else during that period.

In 2010, he suffered had a heart attack. On his return he needed adjustments to his work reflecting his health condition.

These were not made, despite reasonable adjustments being owed to employees and workers under the Equality Act 2010. These were not made. He brought a successful Employment Tribunal claim for disability discrimination.

The plumbing firm appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, then the Court of Appeal, arguing that their relationship with the man was business-to-business rather than as employers an employment relationship, and therefore he wasn’t covered by the Equality Act.

The firm’s appeals were was thrown out unsuccessful. The firm then took the case to the Supreme Court.

Why we were involved

Around 4.8m people in the UK are self-employed. A number of those labelled as self-employed are in practice employees workers, but without some of the rights of formal employees such as protection from unfair dismissal sick pay and holiday pay. We know that some unscrupulous companies rely on self-employment as a method of bypassing employment laws. One of our aims is to ensure that people are treated fairly at work and we wanted to establish what protection workers who are wrongly labelled as self-employed have under the Equality Act.

What we did

We paid legal costs so that the man could defend the Employment Tribunal’s finding at the Court of Appeal. We also paid legal costs for him to defend a further appeal made by his former employer to the Supreme Court. 

What happened

The Supreme Court upheld the earlier decision that this man’s working arrangements did equate to ‘employment’ as defined in the Equality Act and he was therefore protected by the Equality Act. It also held that he was a worker, but not an employee as defined in the Employment Rights Act.

Who will benefit and how

The Supreme Court’s ruling does not mean that self-employed workers have the full range of rights that employees as defined in the Employment Rights Act 1996 do.

It does clarify that thousands of people in similar situations to Mr Smith are protected from discrimination by the Equality Act.

It also confirms that such workers are entitled to sick pay, holiday pay, pension contributions and other basic employment rights.

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