All employees enjoy rights under contract and under the statutory law of the land. Employment law has grown in a way which can be bewildering for the trained lawyer, let alone for those it is supposed to protect.
While employees have had contractual rights since the days of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, in those times the law smiled more on the master than on his servant. Nowadays, it is more even handed. Employees can demand contracts from their employers after completing 8 weeks’ service, which must include key provisions relating to pay, hours, job title or description, and place of work. They are also entitled to their own copy of the business’s disciplinary and grievance procedure. The failure of an employer to provide a contract does not, however, detract from employees’ rights.
Statutory employment rights
Statutory employment rights are far more recent, and new laws are now enacted twice a year. No employee can earn less than the national minimum wage. Their pay cannot be withheld or reduced without their prior written consent. Employers must protect the health and safety of their staff at work and can face prosecution if they fail to do so. Full time employees may take 28 days’ paid holiday and part timers have a commensurate entitlement. Working hours, particularly at night, are limited in various ways, and, except in unusual circumstances, no-one can be forced to work on Sunday or on average more than 48 hours a week. Parents and expectant parents have additional rights to time off.
So long as they have the necessary continuous service with the same business, after one year employees enjoy a right to compensation if they are unfair dismissal, and, after two, to statutory redundancy pay if they are laid off. The law expects employers and employees to show each other mutual trust and confidence, and employees who are treated particularly badly treated may resign and claim compensation for constructive unfair dismissal.
Protection against discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, gender re-assignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation is available to all and is not dependent on length of service. Indeed, such protection extends to job applicants and those seeking references from a former employer.
Both direct discrimination, which includes harassment and victimisation, and indirect discrimination, which arises from “a provision, criterion or practice which is discriminatory” in its effect, are unlawful. The victims of discrimination at work have a legal remedy whether the perpetrator is their employer, or fellow workers whom the employer fails to keep under control.
Employment law has been relatively slow in protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but they are now on an equal legal footing with other members of the workforce. Indeed, their rights, and those of their family and friends, have been enhanced, by the Equality Act 2010, in rules prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of association or perception. So, employees who are bullied for befriending gay colleagues, or stereotyped because of their background, may sue their employer.
Behaviour at work
Of course, the effectiveness of laws depends very much on the behaviour of employers and colleagues at work. It is not easy to stop bullying and some people will always hold outdated, illiberal and inhumane views on sexual issues. Hopefully they are a dwindling minority. It is some comfort to know that, if your working conditions become intolerable, you do have legal rights to fall back on.