A raft of legislation has given employees important new rights in the workplace. Kathryn McCarthy reports.
As the workplace has become tougher for employers, employees have seen a corresponding improvement in their rights. The UK is in its best shape for decades in terms of levels of unemployment and workplace benefits. Rights at work have improved considerably under the present government, and pay and benefits have also risen, thanks to our healthy economy.
The flip side of this golden coin is that not all employers act within the law, and there are so many new rules and regulations that employees are as hard pushed as their employers to keep up to date with their rights. Many people may be aware of new working time regulations, the national minimum wage, stress, privacy and unfair dismissal, but few can keep abreast of the detail behind them.
Along with employee rights come employee duties, in other words behaviours that must be adhered to. For example, health and safety rules are designed to protect employees and the public, but in certain circumstances anyone found in serious breach of the regulations can be instantly dismissed by their employer.
The hazardous workplace
Over the past decade, the workplace has become increasingly hazardous to a point where stress, muscular skeletal problems, acoustic shock syndrome, bullying and a variety of other risks are lurking for the unwary employee. A shift from heavy industry to service industries has uncovered these hidden dangers for white-collar workers. As a result, training, better consultation, flexible working and better overtime arrangements are high on the agenda for all employees who want to reach retirement with both their physical and mental health intact.
The Human Rights Act (HRA), which became law last October, is the latest in a line of laws designed to protect the rights of individuals. The act can also work in favour of employers, so Leeds-based Smithson Mason Group (SMG) advises that in order to assert their rights under the act, employees need to adopt a balanced approach. For example, SMG explains that it is sensible and fair to be able to send occasional personal emails, but not to open attachments other than from a trusted business source, to ensure that a virus does not damage company files. Equally, employees should face disciplinary action if they send lewd emails, defamatory comments about other people or businesses, or download pornography.
The HRA will undoubtedly help employees who are unfairly treated, but it is most likely to be an avenue only explored where there is no other way to address the grievance. For many people, the first step towards establishing their rights is their local Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB). CABs offer a free advice service, and many have employment law specialists who are up to date on all aspects of workers' rights.
Kala Nathan, employment law specialist at Slough CAB's law office, observes that as the law changes and becomes more complex, people are increasingly using advice centres. "In the event of a problem, people need access to good advice, so they should `phone a friend' - their local CAB." Most CABs operate an open door policy, so people can get access to an adviser. "They are trained to give up-to-date advice, and if need be, refer clients to an employment law specialist."
Nathan explains that some people chose to go straight to a solicitor or to a specific interest group, but it is making the first step that is most important. "Their case may go to an employment tribunal, so they need good advice. Tribunals are very sympathetic when people represent themselves, so if it is straightforward they can go by themselves, armed with the information from the CAB. If it is a complex case, CAB staff can accompany them."
A role for trade unions?
Grievance cases only go to tribunal if the situation cannot be resolved in the workplace. Most employers prefer to resolve problems before they get out of hand, because adverse publicity from high profile employee disputes can be costly in terms of compensation, public image and staff morale.
Dispute resolution is one of the roles of trades unions; however, in today's workplaces, unions do not have the presence they used to have in the large heavy industries, or in the public sector. But they maintain they are still relevant and are an accepted staff resource amongst the major players in the insurance industry.
The Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF) union is the fifth largest in the UK. Some 70,000 of its total 500,000 members are from the finance sector, predominately insurance.
"MSF is hugely important for staff working in the finance sector," comments Ciaran Naidoo, research officer at MSF. "Takeovers and mergers, outsourcing, new regulatory environments, new technologies and restructuring, are ongoing features of the insurance landscape. MSF works with other unions, the FSA, lobbies parliament and builds links with trade associations on behalf of staff working in the finance sector. MSF can ensure that employees' individual and collective legal rights are enforced where we have a presence, as well as negotiating for rights over and above the statutory lines."
Naidoo believes the legal support that MSF can offer is one of its most valued services. "Every year MSF secures compensation for hundreds of members who have been unfairly treated. Last year, MSF secured in excess of £10m compensation for its members."
However, in the majority of cases, MSF makes sure members are fairly treated in the first place, through its network of workplace representatives and professional officers. "We are in the business of prevention. A union presence protects staff and saves companies unnecessary cost. There is no one else who will independently protect your rights at work."
How MSF can be of use
MSF says its involvement when CGU merged with Norwich Union illustrates the benefits of collectivity and formal union recognition. Full and meaningful consultation took place between CGNU and MSF. "Redeployment and voluntary redundancies were maximised. The union was fully consulted on terms and conditions with the net result that nowhere near the quoted 4,000 compulsory job losses took place."
"When, in 1999, Axa bought GRE, the two disparate cultures led to a drop in morale and productivity. Trade unions MSF and UNIFI worked in partnership with Axa, winning funds from the DTI in order to put a joint programme in place to address the issue. MSF, UNIFI and Axa have now signed an official partnership agreement, developing trust and openness, widening union involvement to the benefit of staff and the company."