LRD Booklets July 2021

Law at work 2021 - the trade union guide to employment law

Introduction

Introduction

[pages 15-16]

This 33rd edition of Law at Work is published as the UK is beginning to emerge from the worst effects of the COVID pandemic and the economy begins to reopen. The pandemic has created an unprecedented situation for public health, the economy and the lives of working people. In the UK alone, tens of thousands of lives have been lost, and many workers have put their own lives at risk throughout this period.

Unions have continued to play a leading role fighting for safety at work, helping workers to understand their rights to a safe workplace and to organise to enforce those rights. Unions have embraced technology over this period to reach and engage far more members, including what may be the largest zoom union meeting ever, by the NEU education workers' union, who hosted a 400,000-strong audience in January 2021. The pandemic is likely to bring about permanent change to union organising and teaching methods, with the potential to reach many thousands of new members.

Unions have also been at the forefront of finding ways to save jobs, both at national level - through the government wage subsidy Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) negotiated by the government with unions and industry bodies at the start of the pandemic and at its peak, protecting 8.86 million jobs - and at sector and company level through collective consultation up and down the UK (see Chapter 11).

Although employment rates have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for March to May 2021 show an increase in the employment rate for the sixth consecutive month. Since February 2020, job losses have been greatest for those working in the hospitality sector, among those aged under 25 years, and for those living in London.

The pandemic has exposed and sharpened existing inequalities throughout the UK labour market, especially for those occupying front-line “key worker” roles. TUC analysis has shown that, over the pandemic, Black and minority ethnic workers lost jobs an astonishing 26 times more frequently than white workers, while a quarter of pregnant women faced discrimination at work over this period. Meanwhile, Citizens Advice research has found that half of the employees classified by the government as clinically extremely vulnerable to the threat of the virus faced redundancy during 2020. ONS statistics have shown that five times as many young people (who are more likely to be working in the worst affected sectors, including hospitality, tourism and entertainment) were made redundant in 2020, than in the equivalent period in 2019.

Recent months have seen an alarming trend in “fire and rehire” tactics by employers, whereby workers are dismissed from their existing contracts and forced to accept worse terms and conditions to stay in employment. Unions are calling for the practice to be banned.

Alongside campaigning, persuasion and protest, unions have also achieved significant strategic gains with game-changing litigation over this period. Two notable examples are the Supreme Court’s ruling in Uber v Aslam (see Chapter 2), a case that has fundamentally altered the approach that employment tribunals (ETs) must now take when working out whether claimants are entitled to statutory employment rights such as the National Minimum Wage or holiday pay (see Chapter 2), and the landmark judicial review victory by gig economy union, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), that found the UK to be in breach of international law in its failure to extend key safety rights to workers as well as employees, including the right to personal protective equipment and to leave the workplace when faced with serious and imminent danger (see Chapter 2).

Throughout this period, the TUC has maintained an up-to-date online resource for reps, Covid 19 – Coronavirus – guidance for unions – with links to specific guidance from individual unions.

In addition, tax charities, in particular, the Low Income Tax Reform Group, have produced regular updates on the various funding schemes put in place by HMRC to support businesses and workers during the pandemic.

Also, specialist advice charities such as Turn2Us and Citizens Advice have provided advice on changes to the state benefits available during the pandemic, and as to who is eligible, while specialist maternity and family support charities, Maternity Action, Pregnant then Screwed and Working Families have continued to offer advice tailored to pregnant women, new mothers and families with children.

About Law at Work 2021

Law at Work is designed as an essential tool for negotiators, reps and members, and as a means for trade unionists to keep up to date with employment law changes. This revised and updated edition provides the basic information reps need to understand the law, to make their case as clearly as possible to their employer and to protect jobs, promote safe working conditions and prevent cuts to members’ terms and conditions, through negotiation and persuasion. Law at Work is supported by an advice line available to LRD-affiliated organisations.

Unlike most other employment law guides, LRD’s Law at Work examines the law from the perspective of trade unions and workers. While not designed to enable an individual or union rep to take a claim right through the tribunal process, it indicates where the relevant law can be found, highlights what has changed and what has stayed the same, and provides up-to-date examples of the law in action. The LRD’s Case Law at Work series of booklets provides case summaries in greater detail and can be read as a companion to this booklet.

Most trade unions offer their members a legal advice service and any member or rep contemplating taking a legal case should contact their union first. In some unions, tribunal cases will be handled internally at district, regional or even head office level. This booklet does not contain individual legal advice and must not be relied on as such.

Law at Work 2021 refers to the legislation as it applies to England, Wales and Scotland (although there are some variations in Scotland). However, many of the principles also apply in Northern Ireland, which has its own legislation but with a broadly similar structure. (The key differences are set out in Chapter 1.)