Press Release

Top cyclist’s dispute and new legislation could transform workers’ rights, says Hampshire lawyer

A high-profile legal action by the Olympic cyclist Jess Varnish could have ground-breaking implications for many workplaces, according to a Hampshire expert.

Laurence Dunn, Partner at DC Employment Solicitors, says the Employment Tribunal case could not only ‘change the landscape’ of how thousands of amateur sportsmen and women are treated by their clubs or governing bodies but impact on other kinds of work too.

Varnish, who was on British Cycling’s top ‘podium programme’ for selection for the Rio Olympics, is attempting to sue the organisation for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal after she was de-selected.

Before she can do that, a central issue the tribunal must decide is whether the former European and World Cup team sprint champion was an ‘employee’, a ‘worker’ or, as British Cycling claim, a fully self-employed individual working for herself to achieve Olympic success.

Laurence said: “These are important status distinctions that have informed the ‘gig’ economy cases we have seen recently involving Uber taxi drivers, City Sprint couriers, Pimlico plumbers, Deliveroo cycling couriers and others.

“For the most part, the individuals in these cases have successfully established that they are not fully self-employed and are at least ‘workers’ if not ‘employees’.

“Now, depending on the judge’s ruling, the Varnish case could strengthen the rights of even more people who depend economically on their relationship with an organisation, whether that is a sport club, governing body or something else.

“UK Sport, for example, pays ‘grants’ via sports organisations, such as British Cycling, to around 1,100 athletes, many of whom depend on their grant to fund their living and training expenses. As such, they may argue that they are economically dependent on the organisation.

“They, and many others who have not previously been treated as employees or workers, could be afforded rights to make unfair dismissal or discrimination claims, receive the minimum wage and paid holiday leave, and enjoy protection against detrimental treatment for whistleblowing.”

The ruling is expected in January 2019 and is likely to be appealed by whichever side loses.

Laurence’s law firm has a long association with Olympic gold medallist Dani King, and he added: “The involvement of eminent Queen’s Counsel barristers in the Jess Varnish case is rare at the Employment Tribunal stage and is a clear sign that the parties expect this dispute to make its way to the higher courts, because of the enormous implications for other athletes and, indeed, many other individuals providing their services to organisations such as ‘gig’ economy and other ‘atypical’ workers.

The Government has also announced, earlier this week, that it intends to introduce legislation to implement the Taylor Report on ‘Modern Working Practices’, which recommended that the difference between workers who enjoy some employment rights, and those who are genuinely self-employed and do not have any, should be clarified, with the emphasis being on ‘economic dependency’ to establish worker rights. Even if the Varnish case does not change the legal landscape, the new legislation may do so.

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