What’s the difference between an Uber driver who finds work through a smartphone app and a self-employed plumber at a major firm? Both might be seen as members of the growing “gig economy” in which workers are paid for the jobs they do, rather than receiving a fixed regular wage. But according to Charlie Mullins, the millionaire founder and chief executive of Pimlico Plumbers, there’s just no comparison. “We’re so far away from Uber it’s untrue,” he says.
The question is not merely academic either: its answer goes to the heart of an ongoing legal dispute regarding the status of one particular plumber, Gary Smith, who worked for Mullins’ company for six years. Was he a worker entitled to employment rights, or an independent contractor? The distinction mattered when Smith, who paid tax on a self-employed basis but worked solely for Pimlico Plumbers, asked to reduce his hours from five days a week to three following a heart attack in 2010. The firm denied his request and he claims he was dismissed. But his ability to sue over alleged disability discrimination and holiday pay hinged on his employment status. Last year, the Court of Appeal agreed he was a worker and was therefore entitled to bring a legal claim against his former employer. Today, the case reached the Supreme Court, where Pimlico is appealing the ruling in a hearing expected to last two days. Whichever way it goes, the implications will be far-reaching.
When I meet Mullins in his office in the weeks before the hearing, he’s full of fighting talk: “Whatever goes on here will be life-changing for the construction industry,” he tells me. “If we lose that case it’s going to affect over half a million construction workers in London, ‘cos they’re all working on the same model.”
The omens don’t look good for him. In December, the European Court of Justice ruled that Uber was, in legal terms, a transport company, which trade unions said meant its drivers were entitled to the minimum wage and holiday pay. Despite the obvious differences between the app that connects drivers with passengers and the plumbing firm that connects tradesmen with customers, the Uber ruling could set a precedent.
The outspoken Mullins, however, is defiant. “[Our model] is nothing like [Uber’s],” he says. “Here, they earn £80,000 to £200,000, they can work the hours they want, do as much as they want or as little as they want as long as they get the hours in. They have a choice when they come here: do you want the self-employed basis or do you want PAYE. The reason they choose [the former] is it’s more beneficial to them.”
Being self-employed means you can earn more money, he says. But of the 400 or so people “on board” at Pimlico, “some are on PAYE, some self-employed - probably half and half. What we say to people is ‘we can keep you permanently busy and we can’t have you coming backwards and forwards ‘cos a lot of the jobs will be three to four days, so commit yourself to the company. We do 2,500 jobs a week and 75 to 80% [of our customers] have used us before so they ask for that plumber again, they build up a relationship.”
Mullins, 65, a father of four and grandfather of 11, is not someone with whom you’d wish to find yourself at odds. Not far beneath the South London geezer exterior is a steely determination, a self-belief that he needed to grow his business from a one-man band with a second-hand van to a £40m-a-year operation with Dame Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Daniel Craig and Richard Branson on its roster of celebrity clients. Not bad for the boy who grew up on a council estate in Elephant and Castle and left school at 15 with no qualifications. One of four sons of a cleaner and barmaid mother and factory-worker father, he launched Pimlico Plumbers from the basement of a Pimlico estate agent in 1979. He may drive a nice car now, he says, but “I still eat in the same caffs.”
Looking back on his upbringing, he recalls: “We were very poor but what I picked up then was a work ethic. I was working since I was nine. I used to bunk off school and help the plumber. There used to be a saying that hard work never killed anybody, and you dont really hear that now. Unfortunately it’s the benefits system that’s killing the work ethic.”
This easy segue from his own personal mythology to a broader political argument is typical of Mullins’ conversation. Last month he announced plans to stand for Mayor of London on a “common sense” ticket, his main aim being to get more people into the workplace, including through apprenticeships - thus cutting crime and boosting the economy.
“I ain’t bothered who I upset, I’m just going to say what I think is best for London,” he declares. “We run our business here on common sense and common sense ain’t that common.”
It’s a favourite expression of his and the words “common sense” crop up frequently.
For instance: “You’ve got to have more working class people with common sense in politics.” And: “As a businessman I feel I’ve got more common sense and understanding than a posh politician. I’m not knocking Sadiq [Khan, the incumbent Labour Mayor] but he sits on the fence a bit; his voice just isn’t being heard. I think it needs a larger than life character.”
Mullins is certainly this. In the reception of Pimlico Plumbers, now situated just south of the River Thames in Lambeth, his press cuttings occupy one wall, beside a screen showing his BBC Question Time appearance. On another wall is a photo of him with the Prince of Wales and one of him with Theresa May, to whose party he’s donated large sums. Not that he and May see eye to eye. A vocal Remainer, Mullins will stand as an independent in the mayoral race, though confirms he’s still a Tory: “I still feel they’re the best party in there, we just need a stronger leader.”
He claims he was barred from attending the Party’s annual Black and White Ball fundraiser last year after criticising May, and that senior Tories were angered by her actions.
“I spoke to people very high up in it and they said, ‘I’m astonished she’s done that and it wasn’t really up to her ‘cos the party needs the money.’ I think it’s childish [of her]. I’ve had top people in the Government apologising for her behaviour. I have had someone in Cabinet mention it.”
In short, he says, he and May are not “drinking from the same teapot” - another frequently deployed expression of his. “She’s on another planet. Time’s up. I’ve got nothing against her personally but every week Boris [Johnson, the Foreign Secretary] is mugging her off and everyone can see what’s happening. She’s just not strong enough to put him in his place.”
At this point a bacon sandwich arrives for Mullins and he tucks in. In an age when authenticity matters, it is indeed possible to imagine this no-nonsense, Thatcher-inspired, self-made man making it all the way to City Hall. Stranger things have happened, after all, with the unlikely rise of Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and, lately, Jacob Rees-Mogg all hinting at the current power of personality politics. Mullins is no fan of Trump or Corbyn, but seems to think “the Mogg feller” might have what it takes.
So what slogan will he run under? “Make London Great Again?” I suggest.
“Mullins for Mayor,” he says, not taking the bait.
When not working he spends time away from his four-bedroom Belgravia house, visiting his Marbella villa and travelling. But if he wins the Mayoral race in 2020, admits it will be “a full-time job, 24/7”.
“We gotta get back to being that great city again and you need someone who’s prepared to speak out.”