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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 August, 2001, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
Your Rights at Work

Whatever you do for a living, you might be surprised at how many rights you have in the workplace.

Things have changed considerably in recent years, partly through new legislation by the UK Government, partly through European measures taking effect in this country.

Here's a basic guide to what your employer should be providing and what your basic rights are in the workplace.

  • Contract
  • Money
  • Hours & holiday
  • Parental leave
  • The sack
  • Unions
  • Health & safety
  • Fairness
  • Privacy


    You might not get a piece of paper on your first day at work, but your contract is deemed to have started. At the very least you must have a verbal description of the job; after two months you must be given a written statement of your terms of employment. This is not necessarily the actual contract, which could be a staff handbook or even your letter of acceptance. Make sure you have all the right paperwork, in whatever form.

    When you are in employment, you will have certain statutory rights, governed by law. You will also have the rights laid out in your contract, called contractual rights. In some cases these will improve upon your statutory rights; in others they might cover new areas. But your employer cannot put things into your contract which diminish your statutory rights. You should get an itemised payslip with your wages - that's a legal requirement.

    However, you might not necessarily be what is commonly called an employee. If you are hired to do a particular job, you might be given a "contract for services". In this case you could be classed as self-employed, and not enjoy the benefits of an employee. If you're not sure, check your status with your employer.


    The minimum wage legislation came into effect in 1999, and applies to pretty well everyone, no matter what type of work. The rate went up last year to 3.70 an hour, and increases to 4.10 on 1 October 2001. It's less for people aged 18-21, at 3.20 an hour. Those who don't get it automatically include self-employed, apprentices and workers such as au pairs and nannies.

    Hours & holiday:

    UK employees spend more time at work than anyone else in Europe. But things are gradually changing because of a shift in emphasis to family-friendly work policies and also thanks to the European Working Time Directive. Everyone is entitled to four weeks' annual holiday from their first day at work - you used to have to wait 13 weeks before qualifying for leave, but that's changed after a European ruling. Holiday will be pro rata, so once you've worked a month, you'll qualify for a 12th of your entitlement.

    If your contract gives you less than four weeks, challenge it. However, you might find that your employer includes any bank holiday entitlements within that four weeks, which they are allowed to do. In practice, though, most companies won't do this.

    You are also entitled to a break when the working day is more than six hours; a rest period of 11 hours every working day; a rest period of 24 hours once every seven days; a ceiling of 48 hours on the maximum average working week.

    Parental leave:

    Maternity leave was increased in 2000 from 14 to 18 weeks. You are eligible even if you were pregnant when you started your job. But a woman can take longer if she has worked for the same employer for a year; then she is entitled to an extra 29 weeks' unpaid leave, subject to her being entitled to a maximum of 40 weeks' maternity leave altogether. In theory, she can be absent from work from the beginning of the 11th week before the baby is due, until the 29th week after the birth. It is up to the woman to decide how much time she actually takes off during this period.

    She should expect to get paid at the rate of 90% of salary for the first six weeks and then about 60 a week for the next three months. Additional maternity leave is unpaid. Also, all parents now have the right to take 13 unpaid weeks off work in the first five years of a child's life. There are certain rules about claiming your maternity leave. You must give three weeks' written notice of when the baby is due and when you plan to start your leave.

    If you want to go back to work after having a baby, there are certain rights your employer must provide. After the shorter period of maternity leave, you can have your old job back. If you've had extra leave, the company must at least offer a suitable alternative. But they can't sack you just because you're pregnant or on leave.

    There is a new law that gives added protection to part-time workers, preventing employers from treating them less favourably. But it falls short of giving an absolute legal right to return part-time. An employer should, however, give consideration to a woman's request, and refusing to do this could amount to unlawful sex discrimination. There is now also a right to unpaid emergency leave, for when you have to care for a dependant in an emergency.

    The sack:

    There are a number of reasons which employers cannot use to justify getting rid of an employee. These include pregnancy, sex, race, trying to join a union, refusing to do unsafe work, whistle-blowing or asserting your rights. If you have been fired for any of these reasons, you can claim unfair dismissal and take your employer to an Employment Tribunal, no matter how long you have worked there.

    A tribunal can order an employer to give you your job back, but will usually make them pay you compensation. The maximum is 51,700 plus an allowance for each week's pay lost up to a limit of 240 a week. But most people get much less, about 3,000.

    However, there is no upper limit on compensation for sex, race or disability discrimination or for whistle-blowing. And for certain cases, there can be additional awards on top of the unfair dismissal compensation.

    If you are dismissed for other reasons - misconduct or ineptitude, it might be a case of fair dismissal. Others will be judged on their merits. If someone's work changed to such an extent that, because of a health problem, they could no longer do the job, they could claim unfair dismissal if they had worked there for more than a year.

    You could also be made redundant, in which case your job has ended, and your employer cannot take on anyone else to do your job. If you have worked there for more than two years, you are entitled to some redundancy pay, depending on your age and length of service.


    All workers have the right to join a union if they wish. In June 2000, the trade union recognition element of the Fairness at Work legislation came into force. Under this, unions which have majority support in a workplace are able to claim recognition, so they can negotiate with management and represent members. Majority support means either demonstrating there are 50% plus one members in a "bargaining unit", or winning a yes vote from 40% of the workforce in a ballot.

    The new Central Arbitration Committee will assess whether or not a union passes either of these tests. Unions will even be able to take claims to the CAC where they have 10% membership and where they can demonstrate that they would be likely to win in a ballot.

    You are entitled to paid time off work for your duties if you are a union official. Some employers will make clear distinctions between what are duties and what is activism. A worker has the right to be accompanied by a union representative or a work colleague at a disciplinary or grievance hearing.

    Health & safety:

    Your employer must make sure you are not injured or made ill at work - by the same token, you have a duty to work safely and to co-operate with safety procedures and guidelines. Your employer must train you to deal with health and safety issues and there must be an accident book in the workplace to record any work-related injuries. You have the right to refuse to do something if you feel it places you or a fellow worker in danger.


    You have the right at work not to be discriminated against because of your sex, race or disability, because you are pregnant or because you belong to a trade union. This applies from your first day. You are entitled to the same pay as anyone of the opposite sex doing the same or a comparable job.

    The Part Time Workers Regulations, which came into force in July 2000, prohibit employers from treating part-time workers less favourably than full-time workers, unless such treatment can be objectively justified.

    Employers have to ensure that part-time employees have equal access to occupational pensions, contractual sickness and maternity pay schemes; have annual leave entitlement and pension benefits calculated on a pro-rata basis; are entitled to the same rate of overtime pay as full-time workers once they have worked more than full-time hours; and are not discriminated against by redundancy selection criteria.

    To take a claim to an Employment Tribunal, you would need to find a comparable full-time worker and show they were being treated more advantageously.

    Freelance workers also benefit now from improved holiday rights. They are entitled to four weeks paid holiday a year following a ruling by the European Court of Justice. It found that the UK Government had broken European employment law. All workers now benefit from this ruling, but freelancers and those on short-term contracts had often had particular trouble claiming paid leave until they had worked for their employer for 13 weeks. The decision will particularly benefit teachers, cleaners and media workers.

    And workers will soon have to be consulted by their companies about key business decisions. This will apply at firms which employ more than 20 workers in one place or more than 50 across several sites. It already happens in some European countries - when Marks & Spencer decided to close overseas stores it fell foul of a similar law in France. The European Union is looking to implement the new directive across all member countries.


    It is very likely that your employer will have you under some form of surveillance, whether it is recording phone calls or monitoring e-mails and internet usage. It is thought about 85% of companies use surveillance in one way or another. They are allowed to do this under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, which came into effect in October 2000. However, employees are entitled to privacy under the Human Rights Act, so there is clearly some conflict in this area.

    The most important thing is to find out what your employer's policy is on this issue. Under the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act, the company can justify surveillance only if it warns you first. It is vital to know where you stand, as the policy might be quite severe - firing staff for unsuitable e-mails or visiting certain types of website. If a company does not have a policy, it could find it difficult to prove an employee was acting improperly should a case end up at a tribunal.

    Privacy at work is still a grey area because of the new legislation, but test cases will gradually give some guidelines to work from.

    This information does not constitute legal advice, but is intended for guidance only.


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