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Employee protection in UK

In the UK, employee protection is taken very seriously. There are several key pieces of legislation in place to safeguard fair treatment, safety, and equality for employees. Businesses hiring workers in the UK need to understand the minimum protections that UK employees are granted under the law, so you can keep both you and your employees safe. 

In this guide, we’ll take you through some of the main aspects of UK employment law that you should be aware of, including protections for whistleblowers, data security and equal treatment for temporary agency workers.

Whistleblowing in the UK

Whistleblowing is when a worker or employee comes forward about wrongdoing within their organisation. This usually means that they have witnessed something happening at work, although employees can also ‘blow the whistle’ about something they believe is about to happen. 

What counts as whistleblowing in the UK?

An employee making a disclosure about their employer is not necessarily whistleblowing. To be covered by the laws that protect whistleblowers in the UK, the employee first has to believe that they are acting in the public interest. This means that disclosures about personal grievances like bullying, unfair treatment or harassment usually don’t count as whistleblowing and are not covered by UK whistleblowing protections. 

The disclosure also has to relate to an action (or inaction) that falls into one of the following categories: 

  • Criminal offences
  • Danger to someone’s health and safety
  • Damage to the environment
  • Miscarriages of justice
  • Failure to comply with a legal obligation
  • Covering up any of the above 

Whistleblowers are generally advised to report their concerns to their employer before reaching out to third parties. Employees can also make a protected disclosure to a prescribed person or body. The right person or body to report to depends on the industry and profession the employee works in or the nature of the disclosure. For example, an employee wanting to report a concern about serious fraud should contact the Director of the Serious Fraud Office. 

What is not whistleblowing in the UK?

Any disclosure that is not in the public interest is generally not protected under whistleblowing laws. Instead of following their company’s whistleblower policy, employees should refer to their grievance policy if they want to make a complaint about a personal issue. 

Employees should also take care to report their concerns to the right person or body, as this could affect whether or not they are protected by whistleblower laws. For example, employees who report their concerns to the media usually lose their protection from whistleblowing legislation in the UK. 

Whistleblowing policies

UK employers are not legally required to have a whistleblowing policy in place. However, having a whistleblowing policy could help you to build a transparent and open working environment where employees feel safe speaking up if they feel something isn’t right. 

Whistleblowing policies also have several other advantages for employees. Workers are a valuable source of information about your workforce, and encouraging them to come forward about any concerns could help you to prevent or reduce any wrongdoing. Ultimately, this can save your business from reputational damage, fines and legal fees — not to mention preventing harm to your employees and customers. 

Whistleblower protection in the UK

In the UK, whistleblowers are protected by the Employment Rights Act 1996. As an employer, you cannot fire someone or victimise them for blowing the whistle on an injustice. If an employee is fired or unfairly treated after making a protected disclosure, they can take their case to an employment tribunal. Tribunals might award whistleblowers a payout covering their lost earnings or other damages resulting from the employer’s actions. However, employees will have to argue that their treatment was because of their whistleblowing and not another factor.

Employee data privacy in the UK

There are strict rules that govern what businesses in the UK can and can’t do with the personal data of their customers, account holders and employees. These rules are set out in the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018. 

Does the UK Data Protection Act cover employee data?

The Data Protection Act 2018 and the UK GDPR are the two main pieces of legislation that govern employee data privacy in the UK. Their provisions apply to any business that processes personal data, whether of their staff members, account holders or customers. 

Employers tend to collect and process a lot of personal data about their employees for the purposes of recruiting, hiring, and paying them. That means UK employers need to understand the rules so they don’t breach their employees’ data protection rights. 

To comply with employee data protection laws, UK employers need to be transparent about how they use and safeguard the employee data they collect. Specifically, employers must:

  • Process employee data lawfully, fairly and transparently
  • Only collect data for specific, legitimate purposes
  • Limit the collection of personal employee data to what is necessary
  • Keep data accurate and up-to-date
  • Only keep data for the necessary period where the subject of the data is identifiable
  • Process data securely, and protect it against accidental loss or damage 

One important aspect of the laws covering employee data privacy in the UK is that employees must consent to their data being stored and processed. Employers must also show that they have a legal basis for processing an employee’s personal data. 

The easiest way to achieve this is to provide each employee with a privacy notice along with their employment contract. This document should provide details about the data you collect as an employee, and how that data is stored, processed, and protected. 

Employee data privacy policies in the UK

In order to ensure employee data is protected, it’s good practice to have a data protection policy in place. This should clearly state how you collect, store and manage employee data as an organisation, including what data you collect and what it’s used for. It’s also a good idea to provide training to employees about the importance of the UK GDPR and employee data protection. Monitoring and surveilling employees at work In the UK, there are limits on how employers can monitor their employees while they’re at work. This might include things like using CCTV, recording phone calls, or logging their internet usage. Employees could take you to an employment tribunal if you monitor them unfairly. 

Specifically, employers must tell employees that they are being monitored and why this is happening. Some companies have a specific policy on employee monitoring. There are also specific rules about using CCTV in a public place. Employers that use CCTV cameras have to tell people that they’re recorded, usually by displaying a sign. You also can’t use a CCTV camera for a reason other than its intended purpose. For example, if you set up a CCTV camera to prevent crime, you can’t use it to check up on your employees and see how much work they are doing.

Temporary agency workers regulations UK

Agency workers are workers that you hire through an agency, which might be called a recruitment agency or a ‘temp agency.’ Agency workers might be employed under a contract for service or a contract of employment. In the UK, there are certain rules that govern how employers have to treat temporary agency workers, which are set out in various pieces of employment legislation. 

Temporary agency worker vs. casual worker

In the UK, casual employees are often classed as ‘workers.’ This is a specific status in UK employment law that means a person has some employment rights, but not all of them. For example, workers have the right to earn at least the National Minimum Wage. 

However, they are not generally entitled to minimum notice periods or protection from unfair dismissal. 

An agency worker is specifically a worker who has a contract with a temporary work agency to work for a hirer. Agency workers are often casual workers, but not all casual workers are agency workers.

Are temporary workers entitled to holiday pay?

All workers in the UK are entitled to at least the statutory minimum annual leave entitlement, which is 5.6 weeks for full-time employees. This includes temporary agency workers, who are often classed as ‘workers’ (rather than employees). 

Day one rights for agency workers

The day an agency worker starts working for an employer, they have the employment rights of a worker. The regulations also give temporary agency workers the right to use any shared facilities and services provided to employees by the employer. That might include things like canteens, food and drinks machines, car parking or transport services. 

Rights from 12 weeks of employment

New regulations on temporary agency workers were introduced in 2011, as part of the Agency Workers Directive and Regulations 2010. These regulations give temporary agency workers the same rights as someone who is employed directly by the company. 

As an employer, that means you have to: 

  • Pay them the same as employees doing the same job
  • Auto-enrol them in your workplace pension scheme
  • Grant them the same paid annual leave as employees 

These rights are awarded to temporary agency workers after 12 weeks of employment. However, the way the 12-week period is counted is slightly complicated, because certain types of leave count towards it, and others don’t. 

To work out if a temporary agency worker has reached the 12-week threshold and is entitled to equal treatment, you should start counting from their first day of work. Days when the worker was on sick leave, annual leave or leave for jury duty don’t count towards the 12-week period, but time off for maternity, paternity or adoption does count. 

Rights after moving workplaces

When a temporary agency worker moves from one employer to another, their rights reset — even if they are still employed by the same agency. This means that they no longer have the right to equal treatment and revert to the rights of a worker. This is also the case if a worker takes a break of six weeks or more, or starts a ‘substantially different’ job with the same employer. This is a job that is completely different from the worker’s old job in terms of the duties, skills required, pay rate, location or working hours (or a combination of the above).

UK anti-discrimination laws and protection against harassment

Like in many countries, there are various laws in place in the UK that aim to protect employees from discrimination or harassment. These are mainly set out in the Equality Act 2010, which is one of the most important UK anti-discrimination laws. UK anti-discrimination employment laws 

The Equality Act 2010 protects people in the UK from being discriminated against on the basis of certain protected characteristics. Specifically, it’s illegal to discriminate against someone in the UK because they: 

  • Are of a particular age
  • Have had a gender reassignment
  • Are married or in a civil partnership
  • Are pregnant or on maternity leave
  • Are of a particular race, colour, nationality, or origin
  • Have a particular religion or beliefs
  • Are a woman or a man
  • Have a specific sexual orientation 

These laws don’t just impact employers. It’s also illegal to discriminate based on protected characteristics in a number of other specific situations, including in matters of housing and education. 

People are also protected from discrimination if they are associated with someone with a protected characteristic, even if they don’t share it. For example, it is illegal to discriminate against someone because of the race or sexual orientation of their spouse or another family member. 

Direct vs. indirect discrimination

UK anti-discrimination laws prohibit both direct and indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination is when a specific person or group is deliberately treated differently from other people or groups because of a protected characteristic like their age, sex, or sexual orientation. 

Indirect discrimination, on the other hand, is when rules or arrangements theoretically apply to everyone, but put some people at a disadvantage because of a protected characteristic. An example would be an employer requiring all employees to be over 6 feet tall. Because women are less likely to meet this requirement than men, this would indirectly discriminate against them. 

Some forms of discrimination are allowed if they are fundamental to the way an organisation operates. For example, a clinic for Muslim women may be allowed to only employ female clinicians. 

Protections against harassment

Workplace bullying is unwanted behaviour that violates a person’s dignity or creates an unpleasant, offensive, or intimidating work environment for them. When this is linked to a protected characteristic, it’s called harassment — and it is illegal in the UK. 

Employees who experience workplace bullying or harassment are encouraged to first try and resolve the situation informally, by going to their manager, HR department or union representative. If this doesn’t work, they can take legal action by taking their employer to an employment tribunal. 

Employers in the UK are responsible for preventing workplace bullying and harassment, and liable for any harm their employees suffer. Many employees therefore put in place bullying and harassment policies to help them deal with these problems. A bullying and harassment policy should detail the grievance process that employees should follow if they are harassed or bullied, and how the employer will deal with the problem. 

Victimisation

The word ‘victimisation’ has a specific meaning in UK employment law. It refers to situations when a person is treated unfairly because they have exercised (or plan to exercise) a statutory right, such as the right to maternity leave or the right to receive the National Minimum Wage. For example, dismissing an employee because they are pregnant and plan to take maternity leave would be victimisation. This type of treatment is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.

UK pay equity law

Pay equity means paying employees the same amount for the same work, regardless of their sex. Many countries, including the UK, have laws in place to prevent employers from paying their female employees less than their male employees. These are sometimes known as ‘same job, same pay’ laws. 

UK pay equity laws

In the UK, the main piece of legislation on pay equity is the Equality Act 2010. This act grants employees the right to ‘equal pay for equal work.’ This means that employers must pay employees the same amount if their role is the same or substantially similar, and there are no other factors that would justify a difference in pay. 

The equal pay provisions apply to anyone engaged under a ‘contract personally to execute any work or labour,’ which is a wider definition than that of an employee. That means that UK pay equity laws apply not just to permanent employees, but also to: 

  • Fixed-term workers
  • Temporary workers
  • Casual workers
  • Workers on zero-hours contracts 

Also, the legislation requires equity not just in pay, but in other terms and conditions of employment too. That means that men and women working in the same role, for the same employer, must receive the same benefits, training, resources and opportunities for promotion — or their employer could be in breach of the UK’s pay equity laws. 

What is ‘equal work’?

UK pay equity laws state specifically that employees must receive the same pay and conditions not just for working in the same job, but for performing ‘equal work.’ This can include:

  • Work of ‘equal value’
  • Work that has been ‘rated as equivalent’ 

Equal pay claims

Employers in the UK can take their employer to an employment tribunal if they believe they are being discriminated against on the basis of their sex. To establish their right to equal pay, it is up to the employee to show that they should be paid the same as a colleague. In other words, they have to prove that their work is ‘equal’. 

Then, the employer has to prove that there is a genuine reason for the discrepancy in pay. If they can’t, they will be liable to the employee and may have to pay a fine as well as back-payment for the earnings the employee missed out on. 

Equal pay claims can only be brought against a real comparator of the opposite sex, working for either the same employer or an associated employer. It is up to the employee to name the comparator they want to bring a claim against. 

Justifications for unequal pay

In some circumstances, a UK employer may be able to argue that the difference in pay between a man and a woman is not due to the employees’ sex, but to another factor. Justifications that could be considered reasonable include: 

  • Market forces meaning higher salaries are needed to recruit for certain roles
  • Differences in the employees’ performance or productivity
  • Differences in the employees’ experience or tenure
  • When the two employees work in different locations
  • When the two employees are under different collective bargaining agreements
  • When one employee has additional skills or qualifications

Safeguard your business with our compliance expertise

Understanding what you can and can’t do as an employer is one of the biggest challenges of hiring in the UK. Get it wrong, and you could face legal action and damage to your reputation. 

Our solutions protect both you and your workers, thanks to our team’s in-depth knowledge of local and international labour laws. That means you can stop worrying about compliance issues and focus on getting the job done.

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