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Covent Garden Employers Triumph in Porterage Dispute

Covent Garden Market employers have triumphed in a long-running employment dispute with five registered porters who argued that they were entitled to be paid porterage fees in respect of the toil of their unregistered colleagues. The Court of Appeal ruled that such an interpretation of a 1974 collective agreement would make no sense and would be productive of serious unfairness.

Under the collective agreement reached between market tenants and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (now Unite), porters on the market were entitled to be paid porterage fees which made up a substantial proportion of their incomes. Such fees, which are included on porters’ pay slips and subject to income tax, would be pooled and shared between porters in accordance with the number of porters employed by each trader.

In December 2008, the tenants association gave notice terminating the 1974 agreement and, since then, unregistered porters have been employed on the market. Although performing the same tasks as their registered co-workers, such porters do not receive porterage fees and all their pay is wrapped up in their weekly wage.

It was argued by the five registered porters that, on a correct interpretation of the collective agreement, they were entitled to be paid porterage fees on the work performed not only by themselves but also by their unregistered colleagues. Their claims in respect of alleged unlawful deductions from wages, contrary to section 13 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, succeeded before an employment judge but that decision was subsequently overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

In dismissing the porters’ appeal, the court noted that, if their interpretation of the agreement was correct, they would be entitled to porterage fees in respect of work performed by others. Such an outcome would not accord with either good sense or fairness and could not rationally have been intended by the parties to the agreement who would not at the time have envisaged that unregistered porters would subsequently be permitted to work on the market. The court observed that the only qualification required of a porter on the market is a certificate of competence to drive a forklift truck.