In an important judgment, the High Court last week held that under European law, UK workers are entitled to the same health and safety protections as employees.

The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, which brought the judicial review, argued that the UK had failed to properly implement two European directives by restricting their application to employees (who have fewer rights under UK law) as opposed to workers.

The first directive (the 1989 Framework Directive) sets out measures for improving the health and safety of workers at work; while the second (the 1989 PPE directive) deals with the minimum health and safety requirements for workers using personal protective equipment (PPE) at work.  

Although this gap in protection has existed since the end of 1992 (the deadline for transposing the directives), the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic gave the issue additional urgency for workers, such as taxi, bus and van drivers, who have suffered higher than average rates of death from the virus and who have particular need for the health and safety measures required by the directives.

Rejecting the government’s argument that the concept of “worker” in the Framework Directive equated to the concept of “employee” under UK domestic law, the High Court agreed with the union that the term “worker” should be given as wide an interpretation as possible.

It therefore decided that the concept of “worker” protected by the directives must include all those who falls within the autonomous EU law definition of the term, with the exception of domestic servants.

This was wide enough to include so-called “limb (b) workers” under UK law. This is a reference to the definition of “worker” under section 230(3)(b) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, covering people who work under a contract other than a contract of employment “whereby the individual undertakes to do or perform personally any work or services for another party to the contract whose status is not by virtue of the contract that of a client or customer of any profession or business undertaking carried on by the individual”.

Thompsons will produce a summary of the case in due course.

You can read the judgment in full here.