In June 2018, four Slovak journalists (represented by Taylor Wessing), brought a lawsuit against former TV reporters of the national public service broadcaster (RTVS), challenging their independent contractor status and asking the Slovak court to declare that they had instead been in an employment relationship with the broadcaster. While the first instance court is yet to deliver its judgment, the final verdict in this case will have wider implications for those who operate in the grey area of bogus self-employment (particularly in the media industry). Here we look at the history of the case.
Dismissal in retaliation for public criticism of management
In April 2018, more than 50 reporters of the national public service broadcaster, including the four claimants, signed an open letter addressed to the general public, criticising the broadcaster’s management practices which appeared to threaten independent journalism. A few weeks later, the management arranged a meeting with the four claimants to inform them the company was no longer interested in their services. In practice, this meant that their contracts, which were governed by the Civil Code and the Copyright Act and renewed each month (in each case more than 40 times), would not be renewed anymore.
Since the relationship between the broadcaster and the claimants was not subject to the Slovak Labour Code, the reporters were not protected against unfair dismissal. They were not given a written notice nor entitled to a notice period. They received no severance payment, and the broadcaster was under no obligation to explain why it chose to terminate its relationship with them.
The reporters issued legal proceedings, arguing that for the duration of their relationship with the broadcaster they had been, in fact, performing dependent work for the broadcaster and as such should have enjoyed the same rights as employees (including the right to be protected against unfair dismissal in accordance with the Labour Code).
Dependent work and the reporters’ claims
Under the Slovak Labour Code, 'dependent work' is defined as work carried out personally by the employee as a subordinate for the employer as a superior, in accordance with the employer’s instructions, in the employer’s name and in the working time determined by the employer. If a certain activity meets the definition of dependent work, a relationship between the person who conducts this activity and the entity that benefits from it exists automatically by operation of the Labour Code, irrespective of the parties’ will.
The reporters have insisted in their lawsuit that the fact that their contracts were formally governed by the Civil Code and the Copyright Act was just a simple way for the broadcaster to reduce costs in connection with the remuneration of its workforce and did not reflect the true nature of their employer-employee relationship. The reporters have emphasised that: they were fully integrated within the organisational structure of the broadcaster (in the same way as those with employee status); the broadcaster determined their work schedule; they were required to be at the premises of the broadcaster in determined working time; they could take paid holiday but only if approved by their manager and, more generally, that there was no significant difference between them and internal employees. The reporters have also stressed that they were receiving a fixed monthly salary which was not contingent on the number of reports they prepared or other performance-related factors.
There is potentially a long journey ahead, given that the judgment yet to be handed down by the first instance court will likely be appealed. This is a significant case, which may end up before the Supreme Court.
A judgment in favour of the reporters would have direct implications for all those whose activities satisfy all elements of the definition of dependent work under the Slovak Labour Code, but who nevertheless (are forced to) maintain the status of independent contractors.