Almost two years ago, I mentioned the English Court of Appeal’s decision in Uber BV & Ors v Aslam & Ors  EWCA Civ 2748 on appeal from UKEAT/0056/17/DA), where individuals working as taxi drivers for Uber were to be classified as workers not self-employed individuals.
This decision was a significant defeat for Uber, but it was hardly going to be the last word in the story and so it proved. An appeal to the U.K. Supreme Court was always going to be on the cards and, on Friday 19 February, the Justices issued their judgement (see Uber BV & Ors v Aslam & Ors  UKSC 5).
The Supreme Court was asked to consider two questions by Uber:
Whether the drivers (the Respondents) were “workers” providing personal services to the Second Appellant.
If the Respondents were “workers”, what periods constituted their “working time”.
The result? Uber drivers are workers not self-employed individuals. Essentially, the Supreme Court has approved the earlier decision of the English Court of Appeal.
Although Uber drivers won’t acquire full employment status, this decision is, nonetheless, highly significant. It will, for example, mean that Uber drivers will be protected under the National Minimum Wage legislation and the Working Time Regulations.
Paragraphs 94 to 102 of the Supreme Court’s decision are really instructive. The Court found the following matters extremely significant:
The rates of pay for taxi drivers was set solely by Uber
The contractual terms were dictated solely by Uber
Uber constrained or restricted the ability of drivers to decline jobs
Uber strictly vetted the type of vehicle which drivers could use for jobs and the technology used by drivers was “wholly owned” by Uber
The communication between a driver and a passenger was severely restricted by Uber in order “to prevent drivers from establishing any relationship with a passenger capable of extending beyond an individual ride.”
As Lord Leggatt (who delivered the unanimous judgement of the Court) stated at paragraph 102:
“Taking these factors together, it can be seen that the transportation service performed by drivers and offered to passengers through the Uber app is very tightly defined and controlled by Uber. Furthermore, it is designed and organised in such a way as to provide a standardised service to passengers in which drivers are perceived as substantially interchangeable and from which Uber, rather than individual drivers, obtains the benefit of customer loyalty and goodwill. From the drivers’ point of view, the same factors – in particular, the inability to offer a distinctive service or to set their own prices and Uber’s control over all aspects of their interaction with passengers – mean that they have little or no ability to improve their economic position through professional or entrepreneurial skill. In practice the only way in which they can increase their earnings is by working longer hours while constantly meeting Uber’s measures of performance.”
Worker is a term which is widely used in EU equality and employment law, but a single definition does not exist. As a result of the U.K.‘s long relationship with the EU, the term has entered the British legal systems and, in the interim period, Brexit will not change this fact.
In Allonby v Accrington and Rossendale College (Case C-256/01)  ICR 1328;  ECR I-873 the Court of Justice made the following observation:
“… there must be considered as a worker a person who, for a certain period of time, performs services for and under the direction of another person in return for which he receives remuneration …”
In Syndicatul Familia Constanta v Directia Generala de Asistenta Sociala si Protectia Copilului Constanta (Case C-147/17) EU:C:2018:926;  ICR 211, the Court of Justice of the EU was strongly of the opinion that the relationship between employer and worker was of a “hierarchical” nature. This was a view echoed by Lord Clarke in the Supreme Court’s decision of Hashwani v Jivraj  UKSC 40;  1 WLR 1872 where he identified the relationship as one of “subordination” in favour of the person receiving the services.
That said, Baroness Hale in a later Supreme Court decision – Clyde and Co LLP and Anor v Bates van Winkelhof  UKSC 32 – stated that “while subordination may sometimes be an aid to distinguishing workers from other self-employed people, it is not a freestanding and universal characteristic of being a worker”. This remark was quoted with approval by Lord Leggatt in the Uber decision at paragraph 74 of his judgement.
In other words, such a feature is merely to be deployed as one of the many possible tests that can be used by the courts to analyse a relationship between two parties.
The Employment Rights Act 1996
Section 230(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 contains the definition of who precisely is an employee i.e. someone who has a contract of service. If you don’t have this type of contractual arrangement (you’re not an employee), you may well be working under a contract for services. This is one of the most important distinctions in employment law in the United Kingdom.
Section 230(3) of the Act also defines in law an individual who is a ‘worker’. This can include someone who provides services under an employment contract – and, crucially, some individuals who fall into the self-employed category.
Individuals working under a contract for services – precisely because of their lack of employment status – are often denied access to the sorts of legal rights which employees routinely take for granted e.g. unfair dismissal protection, redundancy protection, family friendly rights.
There are notable exceptions (aren’t there always?): high earning British television celebrities (e.g. Lorraine Kelly) or a number of BBC news journalists have preferred to be treated as freelancers or self-employed persons. Why? They can then minimise their exposure to income tax liability in a way (often via the medium of personal service companies) that would not be possible because if they were employees they would almost certainly be taxed at source on a PAYE (pay as you earn) basis.
We have seen an explosion in the type of work that is often characterised or labelled as the ‘gig economy’. This work is often characterised by a distinct lack of employment rights; irregular working patterns; chronic insecurity; lack of long term career progression; and low pay. It is often impossible for such individuals to complete the necessary periods continuous service to acquire employment rights.
Companies such as Deliveroo, Lyft and Uber have become synonymous with the ‘gig economy’, as have whole sectors of the employment
There’s now a growing awareness on both the part of the UK Government (The Taylor Review) and the European Union (the forthcoming EU Directive on Transparent and predictable working conditions) that people on contracts for services deserve greater levels of work-place protection.
It’s not just in the UK that debates about employment status are currently playing out. At the tail end of 2019, it was with particular interest that, in 2019/20, I was following a story from the United States which highlighted many of the issues which I have just been discussing in this Blog.
The US State of California enacted a law, Assembly Bill 5 2019 or AB5 (known more popularly as the gig economy law) giving those individuals working in the gig economy more employment rights. The law came into force on 1 January 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the lack of employment protection for workers and the self-employed. Only last March, I was writing about the fact that the U.K. Government’s reforms to Statutory Sick Pay would would not include approximately 2 million individuals – a situation that Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC was quick to highlight.
By Saad Niaz, Anna Stevenson, Kaspar Stewart and Jodie Williams (Editor: SJ Crossan)
To put it simply equal pay is when both men and women who perform equal work get paid equally. This is set out in the Equality Act 2010 which we will discuss later in this post. If you are an employer, it is extremely important to take note of this. It does not only apply to salary. But it takes into consideration all terms and conditions in their contract such as holiday entitlement, bonuses, pay and rewards schemes, pension and any other benefits your company may offer (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2019).
Now we would think that in this day and age both men and women would be getting paid equally, unbelievably, in 2019 the data from Britain’s largest companies should that men are still mostly getting paid a lot more than women. Even with the amount of campaigns that women’s groups are bringing forward, the startling figures show that 78% of Britain’s biggest companies have a pay gap favouring men (Petter, 2020).
The Beginning of Equal Pay
Shockingly, this has been a problem for over 40 years. Prior to 1970, women in the UK, especially in the private sector, were on different and lower rates of pay, no matter what their skill levels were (Wage Indicator, 2020).
In 1968, women who were sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham Factory went on strike as they argued that their work demanded the same amount of skill and effort as work carried out by Eastman cutters and paint spray operators, even though their job had been graded higher. This strike sparked a movement and before we knew it, we had many other equal pay strikes throughout Britain. This led to the formation of the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACCWER) who then went on to organise a big equal pay demonstration in May 1969.
The Ford Dagenham Factory strike also motivated the Women’s Liberation Movement to take more action. They continued to fight for equal pay of equal value and also and sexual discrimination both in the workplace and at home. One of their main slogans was simple but effective “Equal Pay for Equal Work”. Two of their other demands included equal education and training as well as free 24-hour childcare. This was being fought for to allow women to be financially independent from their father, husbands and other males.
Barbara Castle MP, who was UK Employment Secretary of State at the time and eager to address the obvious unhappiness and distress caused by the issue, promoted the Equal Pay Act 1970. This allowed equal pay claims to be made by women who were working in the private and public sector. This act will be discussed further in this article. When this legislation was brought out, it really highlighted the problems in the workplace to do with equal pay and women (Wage Indicator, 2020).
It was said that women should be paid less for two reasons, first, because their work was less skilled than men’s and in return should be paid less and second, because a woman’s wage does need to support other dependents. We can see how these assumptions would make anyone unhappy within the workplace. Many women have to support other people besides themselves such as children, parents etc.
The first legislation which directly addressed equal pay was the Equal Pay Act 1970. This act was passed in 1970 but later came into force in 1975, and was introduced to “prevent discrimination, as regards terms and conditions of employment, between men and women” (Equal Pay Act 1970). This legislation arose after a series of high-profile strikes took place. These strikes were crucial in highlighting the inequalities in pay between men and women. (NEU, 2019)
The Equal Pay Act 1970 along with many other acts such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was replaced by an umbrella act in 2010 called the Equality Act. The Equality Act 2010 set to update and simplify previous legislation.
The Equality Act 2010 and the Equal Pay Statutory Code of Practise both include the equality of terms provisions, which states that employees/individuals have a legal right to equal pay, for equal work, as compared to employees of the opposite/same sex. Additionally, pay is not limited to just contractual pay, as it includes any element of a pay package and/or any employment benefits. Pay, for example, would cover bonuses, company cars, hours of work, overtime rates etc.
The Act further states that an individual/employee can bring forward a claim for equal pay if that individual meets the criteria of equal work in comparison to a comparator. Moreover, a comparator can be further defined as an individual who is/was employed by the same employer (or associated employer) at the same work environment or at an environment where there is identical terms and conditions. (The Law Society, 2015)
The Equality Act further defines equal work and separates it into three categories; like work, work rated as equivalent and work of equal value. Determining like work involves two stages, of which the first is to determine whether the comparator is employed in work of a similar nature with consideration to the skills/effort/knowledge required to carry out the work.
Once like work is established then the next stage is to assess whether any existing differences are not of any practical importance i.e. are differences, of crucial importance in the performance of the job regardless of job description. Additionally, at this stage particular attention is paid to the frequency of occurring differences and to the nature/extent of any differences. Employers responding to a claim must then sufficiently demonstrate that crucial differences of practical importance exist, justifying difference in pay.
Work rated equivalent
Work rated as equivalent is when work is evaluated in terms of how demanding it is and is determined under a job evaluation scheme, which ultimately makes a decision based on multiple parameters such as skill and responsibility, with a stronger focus on the demands related to work. A job evaluation scheme analytically assesses the relative value of a job and typically utilises a scoring-based system to determine equal work. These schemes must be fair, non-discriminatory and not influenced by any stereotyping. ACAS provides free information on how to design and implement a job evaluation scheme.
Work of equal value
The final and third way of determining equal work, is by determining if the comparators work is of equal value, with specific reference to the demands of work made on that individual, such as the physical/emotional effort involved in work. Furthermore, work may not be particularly similar however it may be of equal value as the demands of such work is equal. This category is similar to the category of work rated as equivalent, however work rated as equivalent takes an analytical approach whereas determining equal value is centred around a more methodical and logical approach where often an industry expert is needed to clarify whether effort, skills, decision-making etc are of equal value. (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2019)
Key Industrial Actions
It is also important to note, that any or all three stage of equal work can be used as comparison methods when bringing forward a claim. Additionally, when a claim is brought forward to an employment tribunal, the tribunal will determine the case based on its own facts so a decision for equal work in another case might not be relevant. Furthermore, an equal pay claim must be brought forth either when the individual is at the work whereby there is unequal pay or six months after leaving that position. However, if the time limit is exceeded it may be possible for the claim to be heard in ordinary courts such as the high court. Also, before launching a claim to the employment tribunal, employee/individual must before seek advice from ACAS and complete the ACAS Early Conciliation notification form before commencing. (Equal Pay Portal, 2020)
As we know, in 1970, the Equal Pay Act was passed, forbidding unequal pay and working conditions between men and women. However, the Act did not actually come into place until 1975. As previously mentioned, the need for this type of legislation was given huge impetus by the women’s industrial action at the Ford-car manufacturing plants in 1968 and also by legislation introduced by Barbara Castle in 1970. Further important industrial actions were conducted in the 1970s and 80s in which both men and women fought for their workers’ rights regardless of gender, ethnicity and class.
The Night Cleaners Campaign (1972-1975)
Three important campaigns/strikes that helped allow the Equal Pay Act to come into force were the Night Cleaners Campaign, the Grunwick Film-Processing Laboratories strike and the Miners’ strike.
During the early 1970s, and prior to this, many women across Britain were working late night shifts cleaning offices. These women were some of the most badly paid and were often taken
advantage of in the workforce. Contract cleaning was introduced, and the situation worsened – companies began to compete against each other over price which resulted in costs being cut and lower wages for the women. May Hobbs was a cleaner who had to experience this discrimination and played a key role in in initiating the struggle for better pay and conditions. She also allowed for union recognition to increase in which more protection was granted for women working in this industry.
This particular strike was in regard to Asian women working as film processers in Grunwick laboratories, the unfairness they were facing in this particular industry. In 1976 Jayaben Desai resigned from her job and instigated a strike along with other working-class Asian women. The protest was in regard to pay inequality, unreasonable overtime arrangements and even racist company practices. She led this strike for two years and within this period there were many violent affairs between the protesters and the police. Desai went to the extreme measures of going on a hunger strike outside the Trades Union Congress which resulted in her union membership being suspended. The Grunwick strike was key in raising the profile of Asian women living and working in the UK. Its highlighted class and ethnic divisions in the workforce. Jayaben Desai showed passion and desire in her protests which increased the recognition of how important women’s work is in terms of industrial organisation.
The Miners’ Strike (1984-1985)
In the 1980s, the mining industry was key for thousands of workers across Britain who worked in this field. In 1984 miners went on strike in protest against the planned closure of numerous mining pits and the lack of discussion about this from the government. This would result in hundreds of lost jobs, taking a big hit at the income of many families across the UK. Women became involved in this by forming groups among the families of these miners and adding vital support to the strike. Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) was formed, essentially putting feminist ideologies into practice – the male dominated industrial dispute allowed for women to empower themselves and take a public role in campaigning against it. Communal feedings of families in April and May 1984 allowed for the group to grow even further as it began to take on a more explicitly political role. During the strike, numerous local support groups were organised which arranged demonstrations, influenced MPs, addressed public meetings and shone exposure onto the poor conditions of miners to the wider public.
Recent Stories Regarding Equal Pay
As mentioned previously, equal pay is the right for both men and women to be paid the same when doing the same or equivalent, work. Equal pay has been an aspect of UK sex discrimination law since the Equal Pay Act 1970 and now the Equality Act 2010, as well as EU primary and secondary legislation. Although equal pay has been the law for 50 years a significant difference in pay between male and female employees still exists in today’s world of work (CIPD, 2019).
The Equality Act 2010 incorporates an equality clause into employment contracts which means that employers have a duty to ensure that men and women are paid equally for carrying out the same work or work of equal value (Crossan, 2020). In November 2018, a survey by Young Women’s Trust (YWT) found unequal pay is widespread with 20 per cent of women reporting being paid less than male colleagues for the same or similar work (Gallagher, 2019).
In today’s world of work there are various women standing up for themselves to fight for the equal pay that they legally deserve. However, according to the Young Women’s Trust more than 50% of women said they would not feel confident enough to challenge their employer even if they knew they were wrongfully being paid less than a male colleague (Gallagher, 2019).
In order to fight for equal pay people all over the world dedicate one day a year to raise awareness of the gender pay inequality. Equal Pay Day is the point in the calendar at which the average man has earned the amount the average women will over the course of the year. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows women’s total earnings were 17.3 per cent lower than those of men in 2019, down from 26.9 per cent in 1999 (CIPD, 2019).
A recent equal pay case involved Kay Collins a former head chef for employer Compass Group UK & Ireland discovering she was being paid around £6,000 less than one of her male colleagues who was less experienced, less qualified and had a far less senior title. Collins was shocked by this news as she had more than 10 years’ experience than her male colleague so asked her employer to confirm this and after the employer confirmed this was the truth Collins gave her employer the chance to resolve the issue internally. However, they did not comply so she took it upon herself to raise an official grievance which could take up to three years to carry out and would see her lose her job in the process. The employment tribunal found that in most respects Ms Collins’ work and her male colleague’s contained differences of ‘no practical importance’ and most of their responsibilities were ‘substantially the same’ and that Ms Collins ‘appeared to shoulder greater responsibility’ than one of her male comparators in some respects. Therefore, Collins won her claim against Compass Group on the majority of the grounds upon which the employer had consistently said that Ms Collins did not do ‘like work’ to that of her male colleagues. Indeed, Compass Group’s own witnesses accepted that their own evidence on a number of these grounds was inaccurate (Gallagher, 2019).
Carrie Gracie and the BBC
Another recent equal pay case involved the BBC’s former China editor Carrie Gracie who resigned from her post after discovering a male in a comparative role to hers was being paid far more. The BBC admitted Gracie had been told she would be paid in line with the north America editor, Jon Sopel, whose salary is in the £200,000-£250,000 range, but after she accepted the role her pay turned out to be £135,000. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, is paid between £150,000 and £199,999. Gracie won her claim about gender pay inequality, received an apology and a pay-out from the corporation, which she decided to donate to a charity that campaigns for gender equality (Sweney, 2018).
So, it can be said that even after all these years, equal pay problems are still here and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon regardless of all the work women are doing and no matter how many cases they win. We can only hope that one day, we will live in a world where men and women will be paid equally for equal work.
By Louise Aitken, Siobhan Donaghy, Kieran Flynn and Elisha Masini (Editor: SJ Crossan)
Privacy is a human right and both the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998, implemented provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 8) directly into national. The employment contract, consequently, is not in any way exempt from human rights issues (see the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in Bărbulescu v Romania 5 September 2017 (Application no. 61496/08). The European Union (EU) has also had a major influence on the development of privacy laws e.g. General Data Protection Regulations.
Privacy has become a major issue in recent years, particularly due to the rise of social media use. The increasing use of IT systems and the internet by organisations and their employees are key factors in the expansion of laws regarding privacy.In Bărbulescu, the employer had violated the employee’s rights to privacy in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention in the way that it had monitored the company’s email system. Privacy in the work-place is a major issue for both employers and employees. Some of the most important areas of law that govern privacy are to be found in the areas of human rights, data protection, and freedom of information.
It is very important to establish from the outset that employees do not have an absolute right to privacy and there may be situations within and outwith the work-place where the employer has a legitimate interest in the activities of their employees – especially if such behaviour could amount to gross misconduct.
Gross misconduct relates to serious behaviour on the part of the employee that is deemed so bad that it destroys any relationship or trust between the employer and the employee. Gross misconduct warrants instant dismissal without any notice or pay.
Section 94 of the Employments Rights Act 1996 states that an employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed.
Section 95 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 states that an employment contract can be terminated by means of the company through purpose of the employee’s conduct. Such a dismissal or termination of contract should be viewed as a fair dismissal (Section 98: ERA 1996).
Acts or omissions by the employee which would be classified as misconduct, such as theft, alcohol or drug use, poor discipline, continually missing work without justification or poor performance are all potential exceptions to this right.
Matt Simpson former officer in the Cumbria police force is one of many who have been caught out due to things such as inappropriate text messages. In 2020, PC Simpson was dismissed from the force after he was found to be having a secret, sexual relationship while on duty. It first came to light after the new partner of the female, with whom Simpson was involved, found text messages that had been sent to her. The new partner of Simpson’s lover then went to the police authorities with this information to make a formal complaint.
A hearing was held to establish if PC Simpson was guilty of any wrongdoing. The panel found that this was a dereliction of Simpson’s duties and he was guilty of gross misconduct – not only due to having this relationship during the time when he was meant to be working but also due to him using confidential police system to uncover information about the women purely because he was “curious”. As well as this Mr Simpson also visited the female around 20 times when on shift and had vital police equipment with him while visiting such as a body camera and a taser device. The fact that this whole affair had come to light via Simpson’s private text messages was neither here nor there: this was an aspect of Simpson’s private life in which his employers had a legitimate interest and he had been carrying out his romantic activities during his employment.
A link to the story on the BBC website can be found below:
In PC Simpson’s case, he clearly performed his duties inadequately and was guilty of very poor discipline. He was aware of the consequences of his actions. By involving himself with the female, he was making himself unavailable at times such as an emergency. Dereliction of duty is defined as the failure to fulfil one’s obligations. Here, PC Simpson clearly failed to do his job in a proper and professional manner and he could have been potentially negligent should an emergency have risen.
A further example of an employee committing acts of misconduct occurred in Adesokan v Sainsburys Supermarket Ltd  EWCA Civ 22. Mr Adesokan was hired by Sainsbury’s as a Regional Operation Manager when he was in charge of ‘Talkback Procedure’, a key company policy which involved all members of staff giving information in confidence about their working environment and relationships with other colleagues. Mr Adesokan discovered that his HR manager had tried to manipulate the Talkback scores within his region by sending an email to five store managers telling them to seek feedback only from their most enthusiastic colleagues. Mr Adesokan asked the HR manager to “clarify what he meant with the store managers”, but the HR manager never responded. Mr Adesokan failed to follow this matter up and he was later dismissed by his employer for not taking action to confront the HR manager’s deliberate “manipulation” of the survey data.
A subsequent investigation into the matter led to Mr Adesokan’s eventual summary dismissal for “gross negligence on his part which is equivalent to gross misconduct”. Mr Adesokan brought a claim for breach of contract with regard to his notice period. The English High Court found that although he was not dishonest, his failure to take active steps to remedy the situation had damaged Sainsbury’s trust and confidence in him, which was sufficient to warrant the sanction imposed. The English Court of Appeal subsequently affirmed the decision of the High Court.
The Adekosan case was remarkably similar to that of PC Simpson where no other option was available to the employer as there was a complete loss of trust.
Activities outwith working hours
What individuals do with their own time is largely their choice (as long as they stay on the right side of the law). It is exceedingly difficult, however, for many people to do much these days without using social media or a mobile phone. Activities which used to be very much private are, consequently, at a much greater risk of public exposure in the virtual world in which we find ourselves living in 2020.
Employees can carry out many activities in private that may get them in trouble with their employers and have serious consequences for them. This might include, for instance, acts of gross misconduct committed in private which result in reputational damage to the employer. Consequently, the employer may have no alternative but to contemplate dismissal of the employee.
There is a lot of case law with regard to employees being dismissed from situations that have happened outside the workplace, an example would be the well-known case of X v Y  EWCA Civ 662.
The facts of the case are as follows:
A charity employee who worked with young offenders committed an indecent act with another male in a public toilet at a motorway service station. He was put on the Sex Offenders’ Register as a result of receiving a police caution. The worker had not been straightforward with the Police when they asked questions about his job and, compounding this, he failed to inform his employer about the situation. Later, his employer decided to terminate his contract and the dismissal was once deemed to be fair. The reputational harm which the employer suffered due to the fact of the employee’s failure to be completely honest about what had happened was an enormous element of the decision to dismiss.
The English Court of Appeal was firmly of the view that the employee’S argument that he had a right to privacy (on grounds of his sexual orientation) in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights was not applicable here as the indecent act was not of a personal nature due to the fact it had been carried out in a public toilet.
In some cases, however, it may be problematic to dismiss the ‘offending’ employee who may be involved in activities which come under the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010 e.g. philosophical beliefs or freedom of speech laws in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.
One example of this was reported by The Independent regarding Dr Gunnar Beck, a German national and a candidate for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far right political party.
Dr Beck was employed at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), (part of the University of London) as a law lecturer. A number of his students and colleagues were enraged after discovering that he was an AfD candidate for a German seat in the European Parliamentary Elections in 2019.
Students and fellow lecturers organised protests arguing that Dr Beck should be fired from his position and for his employer to justify its part “in facilitating his far-right politics”. His colleagues from the School of Law stated that they vehemently oppose the AfD and its policies and wished to dissociate themselves completely from the people who support and advocate the Party.
The members of AfD are well-known for making provocative remarks concerning the actions taken by the Nazis. They targeted climate change activist, Greta Thunberg as part of their attempts to deny climate change.
Employees at the University of London went on to say that they were making their views public since they “recognise the importance of not being complicit in the normalisation of reactionary, right-wing populism.” A declaration by the students’ union at the university asked why Beck chose to work at a university “who hold and support so many of the identities he wants to see diminished”.
The Acting General Secretary of the University and College Union, Paul Cottrell stated that:
“The AfD is an extreme right-wing, racist, anti-immigration party that has no place on UK campuses. We are shocked that a member of academic staff from SOAS could be involved with a party like this which stands for policies utterly incompatible with the values of diversity, tolerance and internationalism at the very heart of SOAS as an institution.”
Dr Beck informed The Independent that his reason for supporting the AfD was because “there is no other Eurosceptic conservative party in Germany”.
He also went on to say that the AfD are “not a Nazi nor a fascist party.” Dr Beck stated that he was an advocate for freedom of speech and would defend anyone’s rights to it and any claims of him being a white supremacist, Islamophobe or fascist were outrageous.
Subsequently, Dr Beck was elected as 1 of 10 German MEPs from the AfD Party, but he was not dismissed from his position at the university.
A representative of SOAS stated:
“We find the policies of the AfD on a range of matters to be abhorrent. They conflict with the fundamental values we hold as an institution. We recognise the anxiety caused to staff and students as a result of this situation.”
However, they added that:
“As an academic institution, we are committed to the rights of academic freedom of speech within the law, despite the painful choices to which it gives rise. We encourage members of our community to tackle these issues through robust debate.”
This story regarding Dr Beck’s private affairs is an excellent illustration of employers not being able to fire an employee for acts committed in private due to protected characteristics (i.e. political beliefs) of the Equality Act 2010.
Both Dr Beck and the University of London have undoubtedly suffered reputational damage. Beck has suffered reputational damage in the eyes of his fellow lecturers and students because he is a member of AfD; and the university has suffered reputational damage for employing him in the first instance and subsequently for not dismissing him after the revelation about his political activities came to light.
That said, the University of London was in something of a difficult position because Dr Beck would probably have launched a legal challenge in terms of the Equality Act 2010. He would doubtless have protested that his political activities were a protected characteristic (philosophical beliefs). It would then have been up to an Employment Tribunal and, potentially, the higher courts to determine this issue. There was also the possibility that the university would have been accused of suppressing the right to freedom of speech.
A link to the story in The Independent can be found below:
As previously discussed, reputational damage is a big concern for organisations. Employers have also had valid fears about risks to their’ reputation as a result of work place misconduct that becomes widely publicised in e.g. the media. These fears have been increased with the surge in social media use today.
Employees are now far more likely to be found behaving in questionable ways or making offensive remarks online, which can attract a large audience or readership very quickly. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp (where responses can be instant) can represent something of a nightmare for an employer. It is important to remember that social media, if abused, can have a significant impact on relationships within the work place and could result in serious legal consequences.
Social media misuse by employees has become a frequent and complicated issue for employers to address. Although social media can be an extremely valuable resource for organisations, it can also pose a serious challenge to both employees and employers. Inappropriate social media misuse e.g. racial or sexual harassment could lead to employers being held vicariously liable for their workers’ misbehaviour.
When an employee misuses social media, firms need to know how to respond and handle it. Therefore, it is vital for companies to devise a clearly defined social media policy by which employees abide. It is important that employers notify workers about the nature of these policies and the potential ramifications of any violations.
So, when employers want to act against employees who make offensive remarks, such disciplinary action should come as no surprise. Such remarks can cause embarrassment, at best. At worst can hurt a firm’s reputation and lose them customers. Even if the remarks were posted years ago, they can still come back to haunt the employer and the employee.
The difficulty of dealing with social media use by employees for organisations can be seen in the case below.
Creighton v Together Housing Association Ltd ET/2400978/2016 Mr Creighton was dismissed for tweets which were made three years earlier. He had made negative remarks about colleagues and his boss on Twitter. The claim that Mr Creighton posted offensive remarks on Twitter resulted in his dismissal for gross misconduct even though he had worked with the organisation for 30 years.
Held: The Tribunal further clarified that the disciplinary policy of THA included “defaming the company or undermining its image by the use of social media” as an example of gross misconduct. The appeal panel rejected Mr Creighton’s appeal to the decision, arguing that he was aware or should have been fairly aware of the implications of his conduct as the disciplinary policy of the company.
There are more and more cases of social media defamation – which emphasises a need for extremely specific social media rules and regulations in the terms and conditions of an employer.
Employees are going to be very foolish if they assume it’s a credible argument to claim that social media comments happened outside working hours, were believed to be posted on an account that is supposed to be “secret” or posted years earlier, which Mr Creighton found out.
The importance of having a social media policy
As previously mentioned, establishing a solid social media policy is vital for an organisation. From the workers’ viewpoint, it is important that they are aware of the existence of such a policy, understand its substance and also recognise any potential consequences for failing to follow its rules.
Employers are also urged to review and update social media policies on a routine basis. New platforms and technology continue to be developed at a quick pace today and to maintain the knowledge of social media is simply made part of induction and training methods.
It is extremely necessary for an employer to make clear to its employees the kind of conduct which may justify dismissal. Usually, this may be done via a section in the employee handbook which addresses the consequences of misconduct in the workplace.
Additionally, an acceptable induction technique for new personnel may centre on the kinds of behaviour which the corporation would not condone. Regular refresher training for current and long-term personnel may be beneficial and, in large organisations, this would be a necessary function of the Human Resources Department.
There was a huge news outbreak when a Panera Bread employee leaked a video of a man laughing hysterically that’s racked up almost 1 million likes (now that’s a lot), as a plastic packet of frozen macaroni and cheese is dropped into a boiler, burst open and then poured into a bowl geared up to serve to customers. The lady who posted the clip offers a thumbs-up in the hat that marks her as a worker of Panera Bread.
The clip introduced a wave of complaints in October 2019 from dissatisfied clients of a chain recognized for “fast casual” eating commonly perceived as a step in quality above other quickly made or fast food meals. Commenters stated they expected more than warmed-from-frozen dishes, or — as one critic put it — “glorified hospital food.”
Unfortunately for the employee she later posted on Twitter stating, ‘lol I lost my job for this’. The employer was clearly very unhappy at the negative media attention and being ‘outed’ for lying to its customers and providing them with low quality food.
In conclusion, employees should be incredibly careful of what they are doing or how they areusing social media during or outwith their working hours as their employers will have the right to investigate any implications arising from employees’ misconduct.
One of most likely repercussions arising from employees’ misconduct in privacy cases, is that the business and those involved will experience reputational damage. Whether this reputational damage is a result of offensive language in a tweet, forms of bullying in a Whatsapp groupchat or even now a TikTok exposing behind the scene practices of a company – there can be significant consequences. The preponderance of evidence shows that how employees conduct themselves in what they may consider private, has a major effect on workplace relations.
Adesokan v Sainsburys Supermarket Ltd  EWCA Civ 22
Bărbulescu v Romania 5 September 2017 (Application no. 61496/08)
By Shannon Clark, Robbie Graham, Salwa Ilahi, Jenna Murray and Ethan Robinson (Editor: SJ Crossan)
The above picture shows people in Britain standing on their street participating in the ‘clap for carers’ which now takes place every Thursday.
In the past, seeing all of your neighbours standing clapping and banging pots and pans together every Thursday at 8pm would seem a bit odd. However, this is now the norm and we will go onto explain how this has become the case.
On the 31 December 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced reported a number of cases of pneumonia in the Wuhan, Hubei Provence (WHO, 2020) and so began a Worldwide pandemic. The cause of these cases of pneumonia were eventually found to be caused by a virus called the Coronavirus. The virus has been found to cause an incredibly infectious respiratory disease, also known as COVID-19, which has sent many businesses and economies spiralling into free fall as they come to terms with the impact of the disease.
It has changed the way that almost everyone in society has to go about their daily lives as they have now been advised not to leave their home unless absolutely necessary and if they do need to go out, stay 2 metres apart from everyone at all times. For many it has also brought about change to their working lives as a vast amount of workers are not either having their contracts terminated, working from home or been placed on a fairly new concept in UK Employment Law known as Furlough.
In this article, we will go onto explain the main changes that have taken place as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and how they have impacted on workers, businesses and employment law in the United Kingdom.
At the time of writing this article (April 2020), the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the UK was approximately 162,000. While this number is not substantial in terms of the total number of workers in the UK, it has led to around 80% of the workforce in the UK (and across the world) having their jobs impacted by the pandemic. This is due to the fact that many countries, including the UK, have ordered non-essential shops and businesses, for example clothes retailers, pubs and restaurants, to close and stay closed until it is safe for them to re-open. As a result of this, there have been over 1.2 million new unemployment benefit claims in the UK since the beginning of the outbreak (Hope, 2020) and it is expected that around 8 million people will apply to the governments furlough schemefor funding (Osborne & Kellowe, 2020), which we will discuss later in this article.
In the Employment Rights Act 1996, Section 230 (1) defines an employee as an individual who has a contract of service. As a result of this status, such individuals are entitled to employment protection and benefits such as the right to receive either contractual sick pay or statutory sick pay (Crossan, 2017). In relation to COVID 19, those entitled to contractual sick pay must follow their workplace’s usual protocol when reporting that they must self-isolate. Employees can self-certify for the first 7 days of absence however, they are required to get a note from NHS 111 or a doctor if they must isolate for more than 7 days (ACAS, 2020).
Typically, those described as workers or individuals on a contract for services are not entitled to the same level of protection. This leaves them unable to claim any form of sick pay. Due to the recent outbreak of COVID-19, the inability to claim sick pay could be argued to be one of the main causes of stress and financial worry for individuals due to the uncertainty and lack of information on how this virus is spread. As noted by ACAS (2020), this worry could now be said to be somewhat alleviated, as of 13 March 2020, the UK Government decided that both employees and workers must receive statutory sick pay from their first day of self-isolation if:
They have coronavirus
They have symptoms of coronavirus
Someone they live with has coronavirus symptoms
They have been informed to by NHS 111 or a doctor
Despite this, it should be noted that this change in policy will not be extended to the self-employed. Furthermore, for employees, contractual sick pay is often much more generous than statutory sick pay and it would therefore be beneficial for employees (if able) to claim this through their place of work instead of opting for SSP. In order to be eligible to receive statutory sick pay, employees must be earning at least £120 per week (BBC, 2020) and, as highlighted by the Office for National Statistics, the annual survey of hours and earnings has shown that around 1,766,000 individuals in the UK make less than £120 per week (ONS, 2020). This means that many workers will simply fail to qualify for SSP – such as those on zero hours contracts as they are unable to accrue enough hours; as well as over half of workers aged 65 and above. This leaves such individuals vulnerable to stress and money worries and may even encourage those suffering from viral symptoms and who are considered ‘key workers’ to attend work in order to make ends meet. This is particularly alarming as those aged 65 and above are more susceptible to infection from covid-19 (Hunt, 2020).
Prior to lockdown in March 2020, Gregg’s, the UK high street bakery retailer, unlike many other big businesses, announced that they would pay all staff contractual sick pay if they were required to self-isolate due to suffering Coronavirus symptoms (BBC, 2020). This approach is in huge contrast to the likes of JD Wetherspoon, which prior to quarantine, announced that all of its 43,000 staff would be subject to regular statutory sick pay rules if they had isolate in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This meant that not all Wetherspoons’ staff would be entitled to SSP and those that do qualify would only be paid after four or more days absence in a row which would have meant being entitled to receive less than £100 per week (Webber, 2020).
With the toll of the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown that has ensued, it has left many individuals unable to work due to the variety of ways that they can be affected by the virus. It is essential that these workers are still able to receive some sort of wage to support them during these difficult times. This is where the furlough scheme can assist those who cannot do their jobs. It is a “granted leave of absence” to enable the employment of these individuals to continue despite the current circumstances (Hodgkin, 2020). Lawrie (2020) explains the way in which the furlough scheme works; meaning that an employer can claim 80% of an employee’s wages from the government up to a limit of £2,500 and the company is not under any obligation to fulfil the other 20% of the wage.
This provides a sense of security for these employees as they are reassured that their job is safe and that they can still receive some financial protection if they have been affected by the virus personally or if their employer is unable to provide them with work during these uncertain times.
However, the furlough scheme, which came into effect on 1 March 2020, is only a temporary measure with an initial duration of 4 months. An extension of this can be granted (only if necessary) and the minimum furlough period that an employee is to be placed on is 3 weeks in a row – although they may be entitled to be furloughed more than once (HM Revenue & Customs, 2020).
It is important to note that, when an employee is on furlough, they are not to perform work for their employer and after furlough has ended, the employer is not obliged to retain on the employee, raising the possibility of redundancy (Lawrie, 2020).
The opportunity to benefit from furlough applies to individuals regardless of whether they hold full time/permanent status or not, and this extends to apprentices, workers, individuals on zero hours contracts, agency workers and temporary employees (ACAS, 2020). The way in which a furlough agreement is made is by the employer approaching the the employee or worker for permission – unless there is a lay-off clause included in the contract. The affected employee/worker would then be required to sign a written agreement to this effect. As the West Cheshire & North Wales Chamber of Commerce (2020) explains that failure to secure an employee’s consent to furlough could lead to claims of a contractual breach or constructive unfair dismissal, which is not an ideal position for either party to be in.
“Two-thirds of British businesses have already used the government’s scheme since it was announced last month” reported Bernal (2020) and a prominent example is British Airways, one of the UK’s biggest airlines. The airline worked with the Unite union to furlough 80% of its workforce, which is approximately 36,000 of its employees (Harding, 2020). This major decision applies to a range of their staff, including engineers and cabin crew, and was expected due to the inevitable effect that coronavirus has had on British Airways (Webber, 2020). Instead of being made redundant, the furlough scheme is a means of offering protection for an individual’s job and part of their income. Many workers and employees will surely be glad of the scheme’s existence.
The UK National Minimum wage and National Living wage was set to increase by 6.2% for 2.8 million people on 1 April 2020 (with this being announced in December 2019). This would be give full time workers an annual pay rise as the National Living wage will rise from £8.20 to £8.72. This would apply to those aged 25 and above. The increase of the minimum wage for 21-24 year olds has risen from £7.70 to £8.20; 18-20 year olds will see the rate rise from £6.15 to £6.45; and for 16-17 year olds there was to be a rise from £4.35 to £4.55. (UK Government, 2020).
However there where discussions that this wage increase may be postponed but this was rejected even though this new living wage will not effect furlough workers as they won’t see the impacts of this on their wages for quite some time. The businesses that haven’t furloughed their workers are being begged to continue in paying the ‘real living wage’ as it is essential to these workers risking their health and safety to come to work. Many companies have begged to have the rise delayed and postponed due to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic which is currently taking place has caused huge financial impact across the UK effecting the economy with smaller businesses suffering the most. It is understandable as to why the government and businesses would wish to delay the increase as this non-essential businesses during the coronavirus have closed e.g. restraints and pubs, thus these business have no money coming in to pay their staff the new minimum wage no less the one that we currently had. This new wage could mean that funds and savings in the business could run dry as they pay their staff furlough wages which could result in these businesses to suffer even with permanent closures of businesses across the UK. But to the millions of key workers whom are working all over Britain giving essential help during the Covid-19 pandemic are still on their living wages and this rise is essential to keep them afloat. (Sheldon,2020).
Amey plc refuses to offer higher sick pay to workers amid the Covid-19 pandemic
The previous living wage was just not enough for people to live on which is the reason that this increase was so important, as it helped make sure that the working class have a good standard of living, but most would say that it is still not good enough and many will not see the benefits until the pandemic is over as furloughed staff are one due 80% of their salary meaning that in the current situation their is even more stress, this can be said as not only are key workers not getting the wage that they deserve for their hard work that is keeping the UK afloat, but many working class citizens are left nothing near the end of the month and this also goes for essential workers, such as NHS staff such as Hakeem Lawal who is a father of three started working as a cleaner for the NHS and has been working there since 2018 with no sick pay provided by his employer , he says “it was very hard because at the end of the month – more or less a week before the end of each month – you are waiting with nothing in your account at all” as well as the fact that the chemicals that he used to clean the facilities where very dangerous for his lungs, meaning that not only was he struggling financially to support his kids but he is aware that the job he is doing is harming himself and he has no safety net if these chemicals where to make him sick and have him off work (BBC News, 2020). It is also going to be more of a struggle for those working at home as it has meant that energy bills are rising as electricity is on far more often as people aren’t turning it off when going to work with a prediction from ‘Energyhelpline’ reckoning that household bills are likely going to rise by 30%.(Jones,2020). The living wage rise would have been greatly appreciated for families that will be struggling financially through the pandemic and self isolation nut if there are only getting 80% of their salary it could result in those who are already struggling to be put in an even worse situation with debt.
On 24 March 2020, during a trade union negotiation surrounding the topic of sick pay for refuse collectors (waste collectors), the head of Human resources at Amey plc (a services company that focuses on improving and maintaining the roads, railways and airports amongst other things) said that the company believed the Coronavirus is “less severe” than normal influenza and because of this they would not be providing their workers with unique sickness benefits (additional sick pay) if they choose to stay at home during the pandemic (Booth, 2020). The GMB trade union, who were arguing in favour of better sick pay for refuse collectors at the negotiation were shocked by Ameys comments regarding the coronavirus, they argued that it is unfair for these key workers to only be offered the minimum amount of sick pay (£94 per week).
Following the GMB’s defence of the waste collectors, Simon Schumann-Davies (the head of human resources for Amey) claimed that Coronavirus was significantly less severe than other diseases and stated that there would be no change in the sick pay that they offer to their workers: “we are applying exactly the same rules regarding sickness benefit as we would for any other condition in that we will be paying contractual entitlement.” (Davies, 2020)
In response to this Keith Williams from the GMB argued that Amey are forcing their workers to put their health at risk as they would financially suffer by choosing not to come to work and only receive statutory sick pay.
Following the barrage of criticism that Amey received for their actions towards their workers, a company spokesperson stated (on 31 March) that workers who decide to self-isolate will receive full pay. Shortly prior to this announcement, Amey had issued a statement clarifying that the opinions of Simon Schumann-Davies did not reflect its position on the pandemic. (Sumner, 2020). With the increasing severity of this situation it was inevitable that any decision by the company not to allow sick pay for workers would provoke an intense, public backlash and this, undoubtedly, forced them to change their policy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on almost everyone – and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It has changed the way that workers in the UK go about their daily home and work life and has brought about massive amounts of uncertainty. However, some of that uncertainty may have been removed due to the factors explained in this article, such as changes to SSP and the UK government’s furloughing scheme as employees and workers can be, somewhat, helped financially during these unprecedented and difficult times.
By Helan Ali, Rebecca Brodie, Cameron Crossan, Jack Holland and Eve Richmond (Editor: SJ Crossan)
Dismissal occurs where an employers terminates the contract of employment between themselves and the employee. There are several types of dismissal that can arise such as: fair, unfair, wrongful, summary and constructive.
Perhaps the most common mistake amongst members of the public concerning dismissal is the tendency to confuse wrongful and unfair dismissal: they are entirely separate (Crossan, 2017). An unfair dismissal is one which breaches or contravenes statute; whereas wrongful dismissal occurs when the contract of employment is breached.
In all dismissal claims, it is important to determine if the claimant is actually an employee. This status is outlined in S230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 in that the individual in question must be employed under a contract of service.
Employment law – always a tricky area to navigate as a result of its sheer volume becomes particularly difficult when it comes to the area of dismissal – as there can be a delicacy when it comes to terminating the employee’s contract. If you look at recent media stories, there are several high profile dismissal cases such as former senior civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam pursuing an unfair dismissal claim against UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel or the UK retailer, Asda (part of the Walmart group) forcing their employees to accept new contracts or to face dismissal.
Fair dismissal occurs when there is a termination of the employment contract, but the employer has the right to act in this manner as per S98(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
The employer may have fair grounds to dismiss an employee under grounds of capability where the employer genuinely does not believe the employee is able to carry out their role any longer. Such a dismissal can be seen in Taylor v Alidair  IRLR 82 where a pilot was dismissed from his contract after he landed a plane negligently and there was serious danger to life and limb. The pilot’s subsequent dismissal was completely fair in the circumstances.
An employer may also have the grounds to dismiss an employee on the grounds of conduct. Generally, one act of gross misconduct could potentially result in an employee’s dismissal. However, employers must have clear guidelines and these must be adhered to, but it does not necessarily mean that in every situation the same same outcome i.e. that of dismissal be the end result. Employers are entitled to have recourse to what is known as a reasonable band of responses, which might include the following:
Verbal or written warnings
Deduction in pay (if the contract so permits)
If the employer has acted reasonably when carrying out the dismissal of the employee, there can be no overturning of that decision by an Employment Tribunal. This is regardless of whether the Tribunal would have taken a more lenient approach i.e. a preference for a final written warning over dismissal (see Iceland Frozen Foods v Jones  ICR 17).
Employees are not exempt from their employer’s code of conduct even when they leave the premises as their actions taken outside of work can still result in a dismissal. This can be seen in McLean v McLane Ltd EAT 682/96 where an employee was drunk and disorderly outside working hours. He was also found to in possession of cannabis (a Class C drug in the UK). This information was released to the media which reported the story and, as a result, the employee was dismissed. This action by the employer was deemed fair by the Employment Tribunal.
Not all employees are fairly dismissed and the actions of the employer might mean that have been unfairly dismissed. To qualify for employment rights regarding unfair dismissal, an employee must normally have a minimum of 2 years’ continuous service (as per the Employment Rights Act 1996), but there are numerous exceptions e.g. discrimination, health and safety and whistle-blowing dismissals.
Employers can, admittedly, find a way around the 2 year continuous service period by employing someone on short-term contracts, thus ensuring that the minimum qualifying period is never met and the employee has not acquired any rights in respect of dismissal.
In some employment roles it is not possible to be unfairly dismissed due to the nature of the role e.g. UK armed forces and/or police service staff. Employees have the right be accompanied to a dismissal meeting if they choose to do so, they can bring a fellow employee or trade union official. Further details on this can be found under S10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999. Employers should adhere to their company guidelines and follow procedural fairness when disciplining employees – especially if dismissal is an option they are considering (as demonstrated in British Homes Stores Ltdv Burchell  IRLR 379).
Moving on to the issue of wrongful dismissal, where the contract is breached due to the dismissal procedure. The most common example is the employee does not receive the requisite notice period from the employer. In this instance the employee would not require two year’s continuous service to raise a claim in this regard. The statutory minimum notice period, according to S86 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, is one week for each year of service up to a maximum of 12 weeks.
Claims for wrongful dismissal must be made within three months’ minus one day of the effective date of the termination of the contract to the Office of Employment Tribunals (OET). The case of Morran v City Council of Tenants (1998) is highly instructive.
Morran claimed wrongful and unfair dismissal when his employer dismissed him without being given the compulsory notice period; he just missed out on accumulating enough continuous service. Held by the Scottish Court of Session, Morran was entitled to claim wrongful dismissal and receive compensation however he could not claim unfair dismissal as he had never acquired the actual right to bring such a claim. Employees who claim wrongful dismissal tend to be reimbursed by compensation. It would be very rare for an employee to go back to their job after claiming wrongful dismissal.
In fact, S236 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (Consolidation) 1992 states that no court or Tribunal can issue an order for specific implement or anything which will force the parties to work together under an employment contract.
Another type of dismissal is summary: “This is when you dismiss someone instantly without notice or pay in lieu of notice, usually because of gross misconduct (for example theft, fraud, violence).” (UK Government, 2020). Summary dismissal if not handled properly can be wrongful or unfair. An employer will need to prove the employee has committed violent or serious acts or health and safety breaches.
Even if an employer feels summary dismissal is the preferred option, it is worth stepping back and taking stock. It is often better and far safer to suspend an employee on full pay and then investigate the situation to head off a potential claim for unfair and/or wrongful dismissal.
Summary dismissal will be justified if the employer can prove the act committed by the employee amounts to gross misconduct in the workplace. However, if the employee can argue that their actions were not that of gross misconduct and no notice period was given employer will be liable for wrongful dismissal. The remedies available to the employee would be compensation.
One last dismissal claim is that of constructive dismissal. This arises when an employer commits a serious breach of the employment contract and the employee has no alternative but to resign. In these types of claims, employees can treat themselves as dismissed as the employer’s behaviour has effectively destroyed the employment contract.
The individual claiming constructive dismissal is saying S/he has been unfairly dismissed and for this claim to be granted they must prove the employer’s conduct was so severe that it amounted to a fundamental or material breach. Constructive dismissal occurs in “situations where the employer made unauthorised deductions from wages; subjected to bullying and harassment; where the employer refused to follow the proper disciplinary or grievance procedures.” (Crossan, 2020)
In Sharp v Western Excavating Ltd  ICR 221, Lord Denning explained the rules regarding constructive dismissal:
“An employee is entitled to treat himself as constructively dismissed if the employer is guilty of conduct which is a significant breach going to the root of the contract of employment… then the employee is entitled to treat himself as discharged from any further performance.”
As a point of interest, Sharpe was not entitled to claim constructive dismissal: his employer was perfectly within its rights to refuse him time off from work to go and play cards. The employer’s behaviour was entirely reasonable and thus did not represent a material breach of the employment contract.
When contemplating dismissal as an option for disciplinary offences, it is often safer for employers to suspend the relevant employees on full pay and carry out a full investigation, rather than dismiss employee instantly. Employers should ensure that disciplinary procedures are clear and consistent and comply with current ACAS Codes on discipline at work (see link below).
Claims for both unfair and wrongful dismissal must be made within three months’ minus one day of the effective date of the termination of the contract to the Office of Employment Tribunals (OET). Failure by the claimant to submit an application within the time limit will mean that the claim is time barred i.e. it cannot normally be heard by the Tribunal – no matter its merits.
Remedies for dismissal
A claimant who brings a successful action for dismissal may be entitled to the following remedies issued by a court or a Tribunal:
If the employee can claim dismissal, they could be entitled to compensation and/or reinstatement (failing that, re-engagement if reinstatement to their old position is no longer available). An employer does not have to reinstate or re-engage the employee and may find it more acceptable to pay a higher sum of compensation.
Sir Philip Rutnam
A current unfair dismissal case is that of Sir Philip Rutnam, former Permanent Secretary at the UK Home Office. Sir Philip is claiming unfair dismissal against his former boss, the current UK Home Secretary Priti Patel MP.
Sir Philip resigned because he is alleging that he was subjected to bullying by Mrs Patel (she denies these claims). At the time of his resignation, Sir Philip, was the Home Office’s most senior official, and he claimed that there had been a “vicious and orchestrated” operation against him. Sir Philip presented a claim to the Employment Tribunal for unfair (constructive) dismissal against the Home Secretary. A Cabinet Office investigation was initiated in March 2020 concerning the allegations against Mrs Patel in order to establish if she had breached the ministerial code. (Patel faces unfair dismissal claim from ex-adviser, 2020). The case is ongoing, but if Sir Philip is successful in his action, it will be hugely embarrassing to the UK Government.
In another, recent case relating to constructive dismissal, a leading forensic scientist called Jo Millington was a victim of sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. The scientist was asked by her boss whether she disliked him because of her sexuality. Millington, who is gay, took her case to an Employment Tribunal. She launched claims for sexual orientation discrimination, breach of contract and constructive dismissal against her former employer, ArroGen Forensics after the company’s CEO Joe Arend speculated whether her sexuality was the reason behind her evident dislike of him.
Arend had inquired whether Millington had a problem with him “because of her sexuality”, pointing out he was “big” and “used to play rugby”. The Reading Employment Tribunal was told Millington that she had previously complained about Arend’s behaviour when he referred to the level of her expenses and salary as “crazy”. The Tribunal found the company liable for discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, constructive dismissal and breach of contract. It concluded that Jo Millington regarded her sexual orientation as a confidential matter; Millington was granted compensation. (Lowe, 2020).
In another unfair dismissal story, a long serving worker at a water bottling plant was sacked for smoking on the premises. The employee took a claim to Tribunal for wrongful and unfair dismissal, which resulted in a successful claim. The claimant, Mr Andrew was a team manager for production at Montgomery Waters Limited, where the no smoking rule was introduced in 2004. Employees were, however, permitted to smoke in a designated ‘smoking hut’.
Bosses were informed that Andrew was seen smoking outside the ‘smoking hut’. CCTV was viewed and appeared to show Andrew smoking, on four occasions, in prohibited areas. The footage showed a man wearing red overalls and Andrew was one of two people to wear these. Andrew, who had 15 years’ service with the company, was suspended during the disciplinary investigation. Andrew denied the allegations, but was still dismissed from his employment. During the Tribunal Hearing, the judge highlighted the vagueness in the firm’s handbook on whether smoking in prohibited areas would amount to misconduct. The judge also observed that it was the employer’s responsibility to enforce strict rules restricting smoking in particular areas. Although Andrew’s claims for both wrongful and unfair dismissal were upheld, the compensation awarded to him was reduced by 50% on the basis that he had contributed to his dismissal (Powys County Times, 2020).
A controversial case regarding the potential threat of dismissal is Asda’s introduction of a new contractual agreement known as ‘Contract 6’, which will replace the existing agreement. It was introduced back in 2017 and, at this time, signing the new contract was voluntary.
‘Contract 6’ abolished paid breaks, introduced compulsory bank holiday working, staff could also be asked to work flexible hours and work in different departments within the store. In August 2019, Asda were accused of forcing employees to agree to accept ‘Contract 6’.
Asda stated that their employees are required to sign the new contract by November 2019 and, if they failed to do so, their contract of employment would be terminated. Employees would not be entitled to sick pay until the contract was signed. The GMB Trade Union attacked the new agreement and claimed that, under the new conditions, employees would be worse off. The main objection raised by the employees and their trade union was the inflexibility of the contract.
Under these new terms, day shift employees had to be more flexible with their working hours – they had to be available for work between 5am and midnight. It also meant employers could give less notice than before with regard to changing shifts. Employees took the view that Asda was disregarding employment law by unilaterally changing key terms and conditions.
In response to the claims being made, Asda may be able to justify their dismissals as fair in terms of Section 98(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 on the grounds that the employer can show that some other substantial reason is the justification behind terminating contracts.
In Asda’s case, the company may be able to justify their actions on the grounds that the new contractual arrangements have been necessitated as a result of a company restructuring exercise. This could make the dismissals potentially fair (Crossan, 2017).
Currently, lawyers for Asda and the GMB Trade Union are at loggerheads. One claim for unfair dismissal has so far been submitted by a former Asda employee, Duncan Carson. He was dismissed due to not signing the new ‘Contract 6’. Carson had worked at Asda for 13 years in total, and a large part of his legal argument is that “a contract is an agreement between two parties”. Carson believes, if one person can change the contract unilaterally.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), announced by HMRC on 20 March 2020, is a UK Government funded scheme to provide financial support for employers to allow them to continue to pay part of their employees’ wage costs rather than lay them off during this crisis.
Eligible workers are put into the scheme by employers when agreement is made between both, and these employees are now furloughed workers (Association of Taxation Technicians, 2020)
Nunn (2020) explains that the scheme allows companies to ‘furlough’ their employees, covering 80% of the wage cost, allowing the claim to include 80% of their employee’s gross salary with cap of £2,500 a month.
CIPD (2020) defines furlough as a ‘temporary leave of absence from work’ due to economic conditions of affecting the company or country.
Although this is a new concept for the UK labour-force, the scheme does nothing to change how the fundamentals of UK employment law e.g. it does not mean a break in continuity of employment. The employee must give written agreement to the employer before being enrolled in the scheme.
The CJRS ensures the job security of the British workforce due to employers being unable to provide pay.
The official government site (UK Government, 2020) announced that the scheme is only temporary; set to last a maximum of 4 months, with a 3 consecutive week minimum period for each employee to be furloughed.
The government site explains that employees on sick leave are not eligible for furlough whilst the business is reclaiming Statutory Sick Pay. HMRC allows employers with less that 250 employees to reclaim 2 weeks of Statutory Sick Pay for each employee off work for a coronavirus related cause, although the method to do so has still to be put in place by the HMRC. Employees with multiple jobs can also be furloughed from either or both jobs, as the £2,500 wages’ cap applies to each job.
In order to be eligible for the government scheme, the employer must have PAYE account, and each employee must have been included on RTI submission in the pay period on or before 19 March 2020 (CIPP, 2020).
The UK Government (2020) also announced that any employees made redundant before 28 February, due to the impact of Coronavirus, could be eligible for furlough status – as long as they were on the PAYE scheme before they were dismissed. Employers could claim for them also and this part of the furlough scheme has prevented those in industries, such as hospitality, from being almost certainly made redundant.
It is, of course, up to the employer if they choose to furlough any dismissed employees who are eligible to partake in the CJRS and there is no legal requirement for the employer to go down this path.
Therefore, utilising the CJRS gives employers the cash-flow for the wage costs to be able to keep employees on their payroll for when the business reopens, as an alternative to dismissing them during this global crisis. At this present time,it ensures job security for the employee but it may also mean living with a reduced wage.
To summarise, dismissal is a vast and complex area of employment law yet once broken down becomes that bit clearer to understand. The area is ever changing with cases now coming against the Government itself and what pathway that may open if Rutnam is successful in his claim against Patel. There are also the uncertainties in the world just now surrounding coronavirus and the impact it was have on employee’s not only with their wages but with their employment status when this all ends.
By Rachael Holton, Ryan Kelly, Amy McWilliams and Jamie Watt (Editor: SJ Crossan)
As a society, we understand the concept of employment. You offer to work for an individual or an organisation in return for payment. Nonetheless, the status of employment, the kind of work and what kind of contract you have can take many forms. What are these different types of employment status? Well, as per Section 230(1) of the Employments Rights Act 1996, an ‘employee’ refers to a person who has gone into or works under a ‘contract of employment’. However, this is not the only type of employment status that exists, and this is a common misconception of today’s generation. In the workforce, some individuals are classed as ‘workers’ or ‘self-employed’. What is the difference?
Differences in Employment Status
For the most part, an employee works under what is referred to as a ‘contract of employment or service’. The agreement will list the basic rights of a worker, for example, whether it is temporary or permanent work, annual leave and working hours. An example is displayed below:
You could be forgiven for believing that this was the most widely recognised kind of ‘work’ or employment. According to figures from the Office of National Statistics, however, just 13% of the workforce in London are classed as ‘employees’, with over 27% working in the gig economy (Rodgers, 2018).
An employee essentially works under a contractual agreement. However, in any case, the rights vary to that of an employee, who is typically qualified for additional, and dissimilar sorts of rights. A worker must finish the work themselves except if they are offered consent to subcontract the work. A business will frequently utilise such and individual to help for a set timeframe, giving them enough work to fill their days over the length of their contract (Rodgers, 2018).
Conversely, a self- employed individual is classed as a subcontractor, who maintains their own business and, in this manner, assumes full liability for everything that accompanies that status. They work for themselves, implying that a great part of the time employment law, unfortunately, does not cover them (Rodgers, 2018).
The issues arising from an individual’s employment status can be seen in the case of Knight v Fairway & Kenwood Car Service Ltd UKEAT/0075/12/LA. The claimant was a cab driver working with the respondent organisation under written terms. If he paid the present lease and gave appropriate notices, he could work, or not, as he wished with no antagonistic outcomes under the agreement. He left the respondent organisation in the wake of being approached to do taxi jobs once they had been taken paying little mind to the conduct of the specific customer. He claimed wrongful dismissal, i.e. a claim for a breach of the employment contract.
Held: The Employment Tribunal ultimately decided that he was not working under a ‘contract of employment’ thus his case could not be heard by them. The claimant submitted an appeal. Nevertheless, the Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed the claim on the grounds that the composed terms did not require any base or sensible measure of work from the claimant; he was allowed to work or not work. Nor in the conditions was there scope for inducing such a commitment from the way that the claimant, in truth, worked 7 days per week.
EmploymentRights vs Employment Status
The distinction between these types of employment status’ is so important in the workplace, and it is crucial that employers and individuals are aware of such differences. All employees are workers in a sense; however, employees get certain employment rights in their agreement that a worker does not. The difference between a few of the rights available to individuals, based on their employment status can be seen below:
In the event that an individual is uncertain about their rights in relation to employment law, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has set out the rights these individuals are entitled to, depending on their employment status. A link to these rights can be found below:
Now, while there are laws that cover both employees and workers e.g. under Section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, both employees and workers have the right to be accompanied by another individual in disciplinary or grievance hearings, there can be clear differences in how employees and workers are treated. A significant topic that has come under scrutiny in the past, and especially now in these uncertain times, is that of Sickness and Absence in the workforce, in particular, the right to receive or claim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).
Statutory Sick Pay
As previously mentioned, some UK employees could be entitled to receive a form of sick pay from their employers, otherwise known as contractual sick pay. However, the amount of money paid depends on the length of time the staff member has worked for at the commencement of the absence. Those who have worked at the organisation for less than a year, for example, may receive full pay for five weeks, and half pay for a further five weeks. For those, who had more than five years’ service, they would receive 26 weeks full salary and a further 26 weeks half pay (Crossan, 2020).
On the flip side, for employees who are not entitled to receive contractual sick pay, Statutory Sick Pay can be claimed. In order to be eligible, claimants must be earning a minimum of £120 before tax per week. To test whether s/he qualifies for SSP employees submit a written document to their employer, if requested, before a set deadline (Crossan, 2020).
If any of our readers wish to obtain access to this form, we have provided a link below:
On the other side of the world, however, in the US organisations are not obligated or required by federal law to offer paid sick leave. However, the Family and Medical Leave Act, established in 1993, enables eligible staff members of insured employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons (U.S. Department of Labour, 2020). Even though, organisations are not legally obliged to pay staff members for sick leave under federal law, some states require companies by law to offer sick leave. An example of this is the state of Massachusetts which permits five days of sick leave for employees (Foothold America, 2020).
Furthermore, in Sweden, members of staff who cannot work due to sickness, can normally obtain compensation for the full period that they are off work. At the start of the time off, a deduction to 20% of the compensation of the sick pay that you can receive during a normal working week (European Commission, 2020). In order to be eligible to receive sick pay from the employer, staff members must have worked for a minimum period of one month minimum or have worked continuously for fourteen days (European Commission, 2020). Workers who are off work due to sickness for more than a week must provide a medical certificate. In addition, for employees who are sick for more than two weeks, the Swedish Social Insurance Agency can provide a sickness cash benefit. In order to secure this entitlement, staff members must be absent for a minimum of a quarter of their normal working hours as a result of sickness. Whether employees receive this compensation is determined by their ability to work and not the severity of the sickness, as well as whether they are medically insured and providing a medical certificate that describes the sickness or injury (European Commission, 2020).
In recent times, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has had a detrimental effect on businesses around the world. It started in China and has infected people from one hundred and eighy five different countries. The ONS (Office for National Statistics) reported that more than a quarter of the 5,316 businesses surveyed have temporarily shut down or paused trading for the period 23rd of March to 5th April due to the COVID-19 outbreak (ONS, 2020). The virus has affected the operations of many organisations: many have seen a decrease in turnover and some organisations have even been forced to cease trading indefinitely.
Boeing “Body Blow”
Multinational corporation, Boeing, is one of the most prominent companies to be hit by the effects of the virus. The company told BBC News that they may have to cut up to 15,000 jobs, after the travel industry has been torn apart by the pandemic, while 10% of jobs will be cut over the organisation, Boeing conceded that the losses would be more extreme in certain divisions, for example, its commercial airlines (BBC News, 2020).
Most importantly, the workforces of many organisations have faced challenges due to the virus. More than half of respondents to The Opinions and Lifestyle (OPN) Survey said Coronavirus has affected their wellbeing (ONS, 2020). Full results of the survey responses can be obtained from the following link:
But the big question is, does the right to sick pay (that traditionally has only ever been available to employees), still apply amidst a global pandemic?
Well, ACAS has advised that employees and workers should receive any Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) due to them as of 13th March 2020 from their first day of isolation if the following applies:
They have Coronavirus
They have Coronavirus symptoms (fever, new continuous cough)
Someone in their household is showing Coronavirus symptoms
They have been told to self-isolate by a doctor (NHS 111)
They then must follow the UK and Scottish government guidelines for self-isolation. The individual must self-isolate for seven days and anyone else who lives in their household must self-isolate for fourteen days. Some employers may offer more than SSP, known as ‘contractual’ sick pay, as previously mentioned.
If an employer requires proof of sickness, then the workplace’s normal sickness reporting procedures should be followed. As normal, an employee can self-certify for the first seven days of sickness, without a sickness note from a doctor. If self-isolating for a period that exceeds seven days, then an online self-isolation note can be obtained from the NHS website (ACAS, 2020). The following link will take readers to the NHS self-isolation page, whereby they can request a self-isolation note:
Another factor that has come under question frequently amidst the pandemic, is whether probationary periods are still in place. Probation is commonly a multi month process, during which there is consistent evaluation and feedback of the employee by the employer. Formal probation audit meetings and Probation Reports, are finished at customary intervals, typically following two, five and eight months (Forestry and Land Scotland, 2020).
The point of the procedure is to give the two parties sufficient opportunity to evaluate whether they are appropriate for one another. By finishing effective reviews and highlighting areas of improvements, you are likewise forestalling circumstances where you need to dismiss staff during their probation period (Willis, 2019). Employees who are currently serving their probationary period have not acquired enough service to be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal (which is 103 weeks’ for employees who started on or after 6 April 2012), but there is potential to bring claims for workplace discrimination and whistle blowing. The following story, involving Eileen Jolly, is an example of how costly discrimination dismissal cases can be for employers.
Eileen Jolly, a medical secretary (89) has been named as one of the oldest employees to successfully win an age discrimination claim in the UK. The elderly woman was awarded £200,000 by the NHS after being dismissed over claims she was not capable of operating a computer. She was said to have “catastrophic failure in performance” after becoming accustomed to “old secretarial ways”. Not willing to sit back and take the discrimination, she took her NHS trust to an employment tribunal. The Judge present, Andrew Gumbiti-Zimuto wrote: “There was evidence of the claimant’s training having been inadequate, incomplete and ‘on the job’ training was ad hoc and not directed” (Smith, 2019).
Thankfully, however, new Coronavirus guidelines have stated that many individuals currently on probationary periods will have their probationary period paused or extended (Forestry and Land Scotland, 2020).
What is also important to discuss, is that due to the outbreak, businesses have been forced to furlough many of their workers as this will allow them to take advantage of the governments Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). To furlough an employee means to temporarily suspend or layoff an employee, this is usually done without pay. This term is most used in US employment law and is not recognised within the UK. Therefore, the term left many workers confused when Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, used the word ‘furlough’ in his Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (Bernal, 2020).
The ONS reported that for those businesses who were still trading in the UK, 21% of staff had been furloughed (under the terms of the CJRS) from the period of 23rd of March to the 5th of April (ONS, 2020). The CJRS allows employers to claim 80% of their employee’s wages from the government, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month – this includes those working on zero hours contracts and flexible workers. This is a temporary scheme in place for four months starting from the 1st of March 2020 – depending on the circumstances, the scheme could be extended. This allows companies to furlough employees rather than dismiss them. It is important to note that if a worker is self-isolating, they cannot be furloughed and should receive SSP until they return to work.
The minimum time period for furloughing workers is three weeks and they are not permitted to rotate which of their employees are furloughed; this can be difficult if someone who is still working is required to self-isolate/falls ill. It is important to note that if a worker is self-isolating, they cannot be furloughed and should be receiving statutory sick pay or enhanced sick pay (if in their contract) until they return to work. Due to this, CJRS cannot be claimed by employers for these employees to ‘make up’ any statutory sick pay/ enhanced sick pay they are receiving.
Employees who are ‘shielding’ (those who have been contacted by the NHS and are required to self-isolate due to extremely high risk of getting very ill due to COVID-19) for twelve weeks are permitted to be placed on furlough. Employers who insist that vulnerable employees continue to attend work at this time, where the work cannot be done at home, could be considered to be breaching their duty of care. The following case displays the effects of a breach of the employer’s duty of care in the workplace (ONS, 2020).
In Walker v Northumberland County Council  ALL ER 737, the pursuer worked in an especially unpleasant social work post for the Council. He had just endured a breakdown because of exhaustion and an absence of help from his managers. His manager gave confirmations that protections would be set up upon his arrival from sick leave so as to decrease the dangers of stress. The pursuer came back to work yet endured a second breakdown in light of the fact that the Council had neglected to take sensible consideration to forestall him experiencing mental wounds. The follower brought a case for harms against the Council.
Held: by the House of Lords that the pursuer ought to be treated as an essential victim who was qualified for damages because of the Council’s carelessness. The Council had returned him to his past (unpleasant) post in the wake of knowing about the primary breakdown and it was, thus, reasonably foreseeable that if the claimant was exposed once again to these upsetting conditions he would almost certainly, this would make him endure mental injury.
Amazon Workers Fight Back
The severity of the current circumstances is evident in the following news story.
Several Amazon distribution centre specialists over the US will not appear for work this week by phoning in sick, denoting the biggest nationwide protest so far against the organisation’s response to Coronavirus. Beginning on Tuesday 21 April 2020, more than 300 Amazon employees have vowed to remain at home. This is as a result of rising disappointment amongst employees as the organisation has neglected to give adequate PPE to staff, failed to execute ordinary temperature checks it guaranteed at distribution centres and would not permit employees to take sick leave (The Guardian, 2020).
Employees of the multinational tech company are demanding sick pay and the right to not be punished for utilising their right to freedom of speech. While there has been no formal action or resolution as yet, Amazon did issue the following statement (The Guardian, 2020):
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams. Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis.”
However, if we do not see change soon, could this be the start of the global e-commerce’s deterioration? We sure hope not.
Readers can access the full article, published by The Guardian below:
Disney is also an organisation that has been hit significantly by Coronavirus and as a result, a Disney representative presented the following statement: “With no clear indication of when we can restart our businesses, we’re forced to make the difficult decision to take the next step and furlough employees whose jobs aren’t necessary at this time.” (Godfrey, K., 2020).
We encourage our readers to watch the video presented to gain a deeper understanding of just much of an impact this pandemic is having on employment worldwide:
In conclusion, Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), is a well-known facility available potentially to most employees throughout the UK. It has been in place, in its current form, since 1982, aiding those unable to work due to sickness and other health related issues, it is a hugely worthwhile employment right. Now, more than ever, we are (unfortunately) having to analyse such an employment right as a highly debated topic because of the Coronavirus pandemic. However, whilst the pandemic continues to spread rapidly, the UK is also offering protection to those workers who do not normally qualify for Sick Pay, in terms of University Credit, Contributory Employment and Support Allowance. Luckily for these individuals, the UK Government has stepped in and has extended SSP during the Coronavirus lockdown. Overall, it is safe to say that SSP has been of great help in relation to sick workers with income support and although its usefulness may not always be apparent, it is times like this we truly start to appreciate the value of such employment rights.
The issue of employability and job security amidst these challenging times, with reference to specific organisations.
Alistair Lee, Niamh Mackenzie, Fraser Morrison and Abby Roberts (edited by SJ Crossan)
The Coronavirus does not pick and choose who to target – everyone is at risk. Therefore, on March 23rd, the UK went into full scale lockdown, three days after the Government put in place restrictions on select businesses. This lockdown has had a detrimental effect on almost every business, and thus has affected their employees in turn. A few months ago, before the COVID-19 outbreak and the World Health Organisation declaring a worldwide pandemic, most people would never have heard of the word ‘furlough’. Now, it is on everyone’s lips. It is critical for organisations to deal with their staff in the correct manner when it comes to their job. If not, their livelihood is at risk and their family’s livelihoods are at risk, particularly if they cannot take advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme.
Some companies have understood this and dealt with their employees correctly and efficiently, while some most certainly have not. People do not forget. If an organisation comes out of this pandemic looking worse for wear, due to their negative actions, it certainly will not recover quickly – if ever.
Virgin is one of many companies to handle this situation extremely poorly. Richard Branson has never been particularly liked by the people of the UK, plus he owns an airline – one of the most disliked types of organisations due to their price hiking. Therefore, this pandemic could have been used to gain some trust back – instead, it has done quite the opposite. On March 26th, Virgin Atlantic Airways said they would reduce their daily flights by 80% amid the drastic decline in travel owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Like many organisations, this steep decrease in business led Virgin to look at where they could cut costs to try and save the business. They decided to do this through their staff. Employees at the UK airline have been forced to take eight weeks of unpaid leave over the next three months. Amid backlash from this decision, Virgin released this statement:
“An increasing number of countries are now closing their borders – most significantly, the US, where a travel embargo from the UK comes into force on Tuesday (17th March). Though this was expected, it has accelerated the sharp and continual drop in demand for flights across Virgin Atlantic’s network, meaning immediate and decisive action is needed… Today, Virgin Atlantic will put drastic measures in place to ensure cash is preserved, costs are controlled, and the future of the airline is safeguarded.” (The Street, 2020)
While this seems a fair and logical response on the surface, if you delve a bit deeper, you begin to understand why it is so horrific that Virgin are not paying their staff while they’re on leave due to COVID-19.
Virgin Atlantic boasts revenues of £2.8 billion, with the Virgin Group as a whole commanding revenues of over £19 billion. (Virgin Annual Report, 2018). In addition to this, Richard Branson has a net worth of $4.4 billion (Forbes, 2020). In 1971, Branson was convicted and briefly jailed for tax evasion. This experience has not changed his attitude however, since in 2013, he described himself as a ‘tax exile’ having saved millions in tax by ending his mainland British residency and living in the British Virgin Islands. (The Daily Telegraph, 2013). And it is not just him personally that is doing this – his entire business empire is owned by a complicated series of offshore trusts and companies. If he were to liquidate all the company’s assets, he would pay extremely little in tax.
When you consider all the above, does Virgin’s statement seem fair and logical now? A multi-billion-pound organisation owned by a multi-billionaire who lives on his own private island that can fetch up to $87,500 per day, asking for a £500 million bailout from the Government (funded by taxpayer money) just so they can pay their staff doesn’t seem particularly fair and logical.
Denmark, Poland and France have all refused to bailout tax haven-controlled companies. The UK should do the same – refuse to pay the £500 million and tell Richard Branson to dig deep into his particularly selective pockets.
Virgin are not alone, however, when it comes to receiving criticism for their approach to dealing with staff during these strange times. British pub chain, JD Wetherspoon have recently received a lot of backlash from their questionable approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. The chain insisted that it could not afford to pay its staff during the crisis until the government had reimbursed the company for their wages (Davies, 2020). Tim Martin, founder of the company, sent a video out to his employees explaining the situation and the approach that the company had chosen to take after the government had called for all pubs to be shut to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (Ng, 2020). The employees were told that they would only be paid for the hours that they had worked up until 22nd March 2020 and that no further pay would be given until the furlough scheme had been put in place. The government had announced that they would pay 80% of staff wages up to £2,500 (Munbodh, 2020). However, this left many employees worried, due to the fact this could take until the end of April (Davies, 2020). Martin told his 40,000 employees that if they needed a wage, then they should consider taking on work with Tesco (Munbodh, 2020), causing considerable anger from employees who felt that they were unappreciated and being “abandoned” by their employer. Not only were Martin’s employees left questioning when they would next receive a wage, but many of the company’s workers were even stripped of bonuses that they had already managed to achieve (Ng, 2020).
The company received a lot of backlash online for this approach to the situation, with many members of the public vowing to “boycott” Wetherspoons pubs in the future once they have reopened for business (Brown, 2020). Piers Morgan, co-presenter of Good Morning Britain, posted on Twitter “Don’t go to Wetherspoons,” in response to Martin’s attitude towards the Covid-19 Crisis (Ingate, 2020). One member of the public even responded to the company by leaving a message for Tim Martin by graffitiing one of the Chain’s many pubs, The Postal Order. The words “pay your staff” and “pay up” were sprayed onto the windows of the pub in red and white paint (Ng, 2020). Photos of the vandalised pub, which were shared online, received a lot of support from individuals who condemned Tim Martin for suggesting to his employees that they should take on employment with Tesco following the closure of his pubs (Ng, 2020). A strike movement was also formed by a group of Wetherspoons employees called ‘Spoon Strike’ and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) and demanded that the company give them full pay. In a statement released by Spoon Strike, they wrote “Whilst other companies such as Costa have promised their staff eight weeks fully paid, Wetherspoons have left over 40,000 people without their next pay date. With no means of paying for rent, bills or food, and no warning” (Ng, 2020).
Following the large wave of backlash that Tim Martin and his company received, Mr Martin later announced that the first payment for his workers under the government job retention scheme would be made on 3rd April ‘subject to Government approval, and weekly thereafter’ (Brown, 2020). However, many members of the public are still shaming Martin, who is supposedly worth over £40million (Munbodh, 2020) for his initial response to the crisis and continue to vow to “boycott” Wetherspoons pubs once they have reopened for business.
The impact on the employment market in the UK is not all negative, however.
One example of initiatives that have been employed to help protect workers is a free online training scheme for furloughed individuals. The Department of Education run initiative offers online training courses for workers who are furloughed in order to “ improve their knowledge, build their confidence and support their mental health so they have skills they need to succeed after the coronavirus outbreak” (BBC News, 2020). The hope is that it helps to mitigate some of the impact the crisis will have on a post lockdown employment market, by facilitating the growth of workers during the pandemic.
Regarding individual firms that are looking after their staff during the crisis, the Co-operative Group are a fantastic example. To show their appreciation for their key workers keeping shops stocked and the nation fed, they have rewarded over 7,500 staff with an extra week worth of pay in addition to doubling their staff discount. The hope is to help to ease the financial burden they face during lockdown and to reward staff for going “above and beyond” during lockdown (Derby Telegraph, 2020). This shows that not all employers are looking to shirk away from the issues surrounding their workers’ rights – some are bolstering them and trying to offer a more supportive and robust working relationship during these trying times.
Ford’s UK division have also been taking steps to protect their workers by considering the duty of care that they have towards them. Despite March normally being one of the busiest months of the year for car sales, Ford’s UK boss Andy Barratt prevented any of his dealerships from ordering new cars. Barratt stated that cash liquidity was important in these financially pressing times and in order to prevent mass furlough he insisted that the cash reserves were better use keeping staff employed. The firm have opted to pay staff until at least June, where they will review the situation and take necessary steps from there. This will protect the rights of employees and their financial security, with Ford stating that; “All dealers need to focus on, is keeping their people safe, keeping their business viable and the revenue they need in return to keep those things going.” (Chaplin, 2020). They have not only done this for financial reasons – the company recognised that there is a great level of stress put on workers in the months of April and March to shift all of this new stock but they decided it was more important to protect the mental and physical health of employees and as a result, they have instructed that staff should work from home where possible. This shows a great awareness of the duty of care that Ford have for their staff, taking action to support their financial wellbeing, in addition to physical and mental health of their staff in these uncertain times.
After the initiative of companies such as The Co-op and Ford, the UK staple that is Boots have followed suit.
Boots is one of the largest retailers in the UK, both in terms of revenue and number of shops. Boots have around 2,500 shops and employ over 63,000 people across the United Kingdom – these range from local pharmacies to large health and beauty shops.
Due to the recent COVID-19 breakout, many shops and retailers have been forced to shut. Like other pharmacy chains, Boots have been designated as an essential retailer which is why they have remained open during this worldwide pandemic. However, staying open opens a whole new can of worms – particularly when it comes to keeping employees and customers as safe as possible, all the time.
To make sure that Boots employees are fully protected, they have put many factors in place to protect and support their staff, to take care of their customers by providing a consistently high service, and to also protect their business. By taking these measures, it ensures a safe, secure employment through difficult trading conditions. Some of the measures that have been taken by Boots to comply with their duty of care for their staff and customers include:
Flexible hours to cope with increased demand
Closing stores for one hour each day to clean and sanitise surfaces
Plastic visors provided for staff
Workers always asked to remain two metres apart throughout the day
Maximum of 3 customers allowed in the shop at the one time to maintain social distancing
Perspex screens put up at counters.
Boots are in some ways in a different trading position than many other companies across the globe. Their role is to provide healthcare to customers and to make sure patients receive vital medical products. Their employees benefit from this, but in turn they also have to now work in difficult and unsafe conditions with the COVID-19 situation, so Boots have to make sure they provide as much personal protection to safeguard their employees and customers, and to let them continue to trade effectively.
Boots employees do not have the risk of being put on furlough or being made redundant. They provide an important service and their employees are classed as Front-Line Workers, who have the permission under Government guidelines, to carry on working at their normal place of work. Because of these conditions, Boots employees feel that they continue to have job security, and do not have the worry of losing their income as many others do, through these difficult circumstances.
Instead of closing stores and pharmacies, and putting employees in insecure positions, they have created jobs out of this situation. Due to the high demand of prescriptions being delivered to patients aged 60 and above, they have had to recruit more than 400 new drivers for the pharmacy delivery and collection service, where prescriptions are collected from doctors’ surgeries. This has been done to cope with unprecedented demand but overall it is a major benefit as many people may have been made redundant and are grateful of having the opportunity to take on a different role, whilst also helping to provide support for people in need. They have also created jobs in their warehouses and distribution centres due to a significant increase in its online business.
In the coming weeks, the lockdown measures may or may not be lifted. However, even if they are, there will be several restrictive measures put in place and thousands of businesses will still not be allowed to open. This means that organisations will need to continue to support their staff as much as possible, and if they are not currently supporting staff to the best of their abilities, they will need to start doing so. It is as simple as that. For what is a relatively short period of time to take a financial hit by paying staff in full, while not bringing in any revenue, it is a drop in the ocean when you consider the potential long term impact of millions of customers boycotting the business because of the way they treated their staff during this pandemic.
CopyrightAlistair Lee, Niamh Mackenzie, Fraser Morrison and Abby Roberts, 28 April 2020
In the UK, the beginning of April is always an important period for employment lawyers because the British Government and/or the Westminster Parliament typically introduce new laws which directly impact on people’s terms and conditions of employment.
There is no such thing as one document which contains all the terms of an employment contract – something that my students and members of the public have difficulty understanding at first. It is important to grasp from the outset that there are various sources of the employment contract which include, amongst other things:
The written statement of the main terms and conditions of the contract (as per Section 1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996)
Employee handbooks (e.g. available on employer’s intranet)
Employer’s policies and codes of conduct (e.g. disciplinary codes)
EU Laws, Acts of Parliament and statutory instruments (e.g. Employment Rights Act 1996, Equality Act 2010, TUPE Regulations 2006, Equal Treatment Directives)
Judicial precedent and the common law (e.g. Walker v Northumberland County Council 1 AER 737)
Today new rules come into force about the written statement of the main terms of employment. Previously, only employees were entitled to receive such a document which had to be issued by an employer within 8 weeks of the commencement of employment (as per Section 1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996). Now, an employer must issue a written statement to both employees and workers from or before day 1 of their employment or engagement. This is known as the principal statement and is a short summary of the most important parts of the employment contract.
A link to the UK Government’s website detailing these important changes can be found below:
A second statement – known as the wider statement – must be issued to the employee or worker within 8 weeks of the commencement of the contract of employment or engagement.
Together, both written statements will contain important information about the contract of employment, such as:
The employee’s name
The employer’s name
Date when employment commenced and period of continuous service
The rate of pay and how often the employee is paid
Sick pay entitlement
Pensionable service and details of employer’s pension scheme
Job title or brief JOD description
Whether the job is permanent/temporary/fixed term
The location of the employee’s place of work
The existence of collective agreements and how they affect the contract
Arrangements for working outside the UK (if relevant)
Details of disciplinary and grievance procedures
Furthermore, as a result of today’s changes to the law, the written statement must also address the following matters:
The hours and days of the week that the employee/worker must work for the employer and whether they can be changed and the mechanism for doing so
Entitlement to any paid leave
Entitlement to contractual benefits which have not already been addressed in the written statement
Probationary periods (if relevant)
Training opportunities provided by the employer
The legal status of the written agreement
The written statement is not the contract of employment itself because no single document could possibly encompass all the terms of such an agreement. There is nothing to stop the parties adopting the statement as the contract of employment, but it is important to understand that it can be varied or altered as a result of legislative changes, court decisions and collective agreements.
As of today, entitlement to leave for bereaved parents is being introduced; increases to the National Minimum and Living Wages come into force; and increases to a range of statutory payments are also taking place. With all of this going on, it would be very difficult – if not impossible – for any written statement to express the totality of the employment contract in any meaningful sense.
Failure to issue a written statement
Section 38 of the Employment Act 2002 gives employees the right to pursue an Employment Tribunal claim against an employer for failure to issue a written statement. This type of claim would usually be brought by an employee as part of another claim against the employer e.g. dismissal or discrimination claims. In such an instance, the employee would state on the Tribunal application (the ‘ET1’) that the employer had failed to issue written terms. It is always worthwhile submitting this type of claim as part of the bigger picture of the employee’s grievance because an Employment Tribunal could issue an award worth up to 4 weeks’ wages.
Any employee who is dismissed by the employer for requesting their statutory right to receive a written statement will have the right to pursue a claim for unfair dismissal in terms of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
An example of an extract taken from an ET1 form can be seen below:
The right to receive a written statement was, previously, a very important indication of a person’s employment status i.e. whether they had a contract of service in terms of Section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 – as opposed to a contract for services.
In the leading House of Lords’ decision – Carmichael v National Power plc IRLR 43, two women who were engaged on casual as required contracts as tour guides at the (now demolished) Blyth Power Plant in Northumberland were not entitled to receive written statements of employment because they were engaged under a contract for services. There was no mutuality of obligation between the parties in that National Power was not obliged to offer the women work and the two women, if offered work, were not obliged to accept it. With today’s changes to the Employment Rights Act 1996, the two women in Carmichael would now be entitled to receive a written statement because they were workers.
A link to the ACAS website which provides (free) access to blank templates for employers to generate their own written statement can be found below:
I never thought that the subject of impossibility and frustration in relation to contract would become such a popular topic of everyday conversation; but it has.
The phrase “force majeure” has also been making more of an appearance than is commonly the case.
The continuing fallout from Coronavirus or COVID-19 has led to all sorts of sporting and cultural events being cancelled or postponed. We are also about to enter the holiday season with the Spring Break and Easter Weekend just over the horizon. Many people will have booked getaways to foreign climes and events have now completely overtaken such plans.
Critically, thousands of people will have paid something up front for football season tickets and holidays and they will be anxious to know where they stand legally.
Hearts owner Ann Budge says she would consider legal action should her club be relegated from the Scottish Premiership with eight games left:
There are two ways of dealing with an unexpected situation which affects contractual performance: being reactive or being farsighted.
At the moment, the scale of COVID-19 has completely taken Governments, societies, business, cultural, sporting organisations and individuals completely by surprise. So, in a sense, we are being forced to react to changing circumstances and rely upon established legal contractual principles which govern the termination of agreements i.e. frustration, impossibility and illegality. More about these matters shortly.
As lawyers, could we have pre-empted or foreseen that events (I’m speaking in the general sense here) might render contractual performance highly unlikely or well nigh impossible? Well, yes the concept of Force Majeure clauses is recognised in contract law – although the linguists amongst us may recognise that it’s not a native species of English or Scots law.
“words ‘force majeure’ are not words which we generally find in an English contract. They are taken from the Code Napoleon and they were inserted by this Romanian gentleman or by his advisers, who were no doubt familiar with their use on the Continent.”
In the English case of Matsoukis v Priestman 1 KB 681 Bailhace J in English High Court noted that the:
Bailhace J was of the view that force majeure clauses could cover events such as industrial action, but certainly not bad weather or football or funerals.
Yet in the later English High Court decision LebeaupinvRichard Crispin2 KB 714, force majeure was given a much broader meaning to include events such as war, bad weather, industrial action and, interestingly, epidemics. That said McCardie J was at pains to point out:
“A force majeure clause should be construed in each case with a close attention to the words which precede or follow it, and with a due regard to the nature and general terms of the contract. The eﬀect of the clause may vary with each instrument.”
Essentially, such clauses are inserted into contracts to deal with the consequences of events outwith the control of the parties which may render performance of the contract impossible.
Ross Campbell of Brodies Solicitors who has pointed out that the rules of last year’s Rugby World Cup tournament in Japan contained a force majeure clause addressing the cancellation of matches due to extreme weather. The clause was not utilised and, therefore, not challenged, but it’s an interesting example of how parties to an agreement might attempt to address situations which can have serious consequences for contractual performance.
A link to Ross Campbell’s article can be found below:
The very phrase force majeure conjuresup images of an unstoppable force that sweeps away the accepted rules or conventions – almost akin to the idea of damnum fatale or an act of God.
So whether, will the courts permit the application of a force majeure clause will turn on the wording of the clause.
Could anyone have predicted the situation that we are now in with COVID-19 and drafted an appropriate clause to address these unprecedented times? It’s extremely doubtful. I’m not pretending to be Nostradamus (or for our Scottish readers, the Brahan Seer or Thomas the Rhymer) when I predict that many lawyers and their clients will actively be looking at the usefulness of force majeure clauses.
Triggering a force majeure clause
For those parties wishing to rely upon force majeure clauses, drafting the term may be crucially important. It might be highly advisable to have a list of events or circumstances which trigger operation of the clause; and then have a catch-all provision or belt and braces term to cover things you might not have explicitly specified (as per McCardie J’s remarks in Lebeaupin v Richard Crispin . Be aware, however, that extremely wide catch-all provisions may be disallowed because they are not within the normal meaning of the term (see Tandrin Aviation Holdings Ltd v Aero Toy Store LLC  EWHC 40 (Comm)).
Frustration, impossibility and illegality
Let’s now turn to situations where individuals have to react to unexpected events without having the benefit of a force majeure clause in the agreement.
Since the formation of a contract, circumstances affecting the agreement may have changed dramatically (i.e. the pandemic). The contract may now be impossible to perform or the contract may have been rendered illegal by changes in the law.
Physical destruction of the subject-matter of the contract can also frustrate contracts.
Perhaps one of the best known examples of frustration can be seen in the case below:
Taylor v Caldwell (1863) the Surrey Gardens and Music Hall was hired by the pursuers from the defenders for the purpose of holding four grand concerts and fêtes. Before the first concert on 17 June 1862 could took place, the hall was completely destroyed by fire. Neither party was responsible for this incident. The pursuers, however, brought an action for damages against the defenders for wasted advertising costs.
Held: By the English High Court that it was clearly impossible for the contract to be performed because it relied on the continuing existence of the venue. The pursuers claim for damages was dismissed on the grounds that the purpose of the contract had been frustrated.
In another case, Vitol SA v Esso Australia 1988The Times 1 February 1988, a contract for the sale of petroleum was discharged on the grounds of frustration when both the ship and its cargo of petroleum were completely destroyed in a missile attack in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The sellers had attempted to sue the buyers for the price of the goods, but this claim was dismissed.
The ‘coronation’ cases
Two famous cases which are particularly instructive are the ‘Coronation Cases’ because they concern the consequences of changing circumstances. Both cases arose due to the illness of King Edward VII. The new King was unable to participate or attend a variety of events to celebrate his accession to the British throne following the death of his mother, Queen Victoria.
The English Court of Appeal took different approaches in each of the cases:
Krell v Henry  2 KB 740 the pursuer was the owner of a flat in the central London district of Pall Mall. The pursuer’s flat was on the route of the proposed coronation procession of the new King, Edward VII, which was scheduled to take place on 26 and 27 June 1902. The pursuer had advertised his flat for rent during the daytime on 26 and 27 June for the purpose of viewing the procession. The defender, who was anxious to view the procession, responded to the advertisement and entered into an agreement to hire the flat on the days specified. An announcement was made on 24 June stating that the procession was to be cancelled owing to the King’s illness. The defender refused to pay the balance of the rent for the flat by reason that events had frustrated performance of the contract. The pursuer brought an action against the defender for payment of the balance of the rent.
Held: by the English Court of Appeal that the cancellation of the event frustrated the contract and discharged the parties from their obligations under it. The clinching argument in the defender’s favour was that both parties clearly entered into the contract with the same intention.
The reason behind the hire of the flat was, therefore, a material term of the contract. Had the defender failed to communicate his motivation for hiring the flat, then the contract would have remained capable of enforcement by the pursuer.
Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams was of the opinion that frustration of contract was not limited to either the destruction or non-existence of the subject matter of the contract. It was also important to identify the substance or the purpose of the agreement. In other words, did the parties share the same intentions?
The illness of King Edward resulted in a second legal action. This time, however, the English Court of Appeal took a completely different approach to the issue of frustration of contract.
Herne Bay Steamboat Co v Hutton  2 KB 683 the pursuers had entered into a contract to hire a steamship to the defender for two days. The Royal Navy was assembling at Spithead to take part in a naval review to celebrate King Edward’s coronation.
The King was to review the fleet personally. The defender wished to transport paying guests from Herne Bay to Spithead to see the naval review. Due to the King’s illness, an official announcement was made cancelling the review. It would still have been perfectly possible for the defender to take his passengers on a cruise to see the assembled fleet. The defender, however, refused to use the vessel claiming that the contract had been frustrated. The pursuers brought an action against the defender for the balance of the fee of £250 (a considerable sum in those times) owed by the defender who was refusing to pay for the hire of the boat.
Held: the contract was not discharged by reason of frustration. The main purpose of the contract could still be achieved i.e. to take paying guests for a cruise around the fleet.
Why the difference in approach?
In Krell v Henry , Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams was of the opinion that frustration of contract was not limited to either the destruction or non-existence of the subject matter of the contract.
The difference in Herne Bay Steamboat Co v Hutton  was that the contract was the main purpose of the contract could still be achieved i.e. to take paying guests for a cruise around the fleet – despite the fact that King Edward VII would not be personally reviewing the fleet due to his unexpected illness.
This difference in approach taken by the Court of Appeal in both cases is sometimes difficult to understand. In Krell v Henry, both parties had clearly intended that the purpose of the contract was to view the coronation procession (which was postponed). Reinforcing this fact, was the fact that the defender was only entitled to use the flat during the daytime.
In Herne Bay Steamboat Co v Hutton, the purpose of the defender in hiring the steamship was to see the naval review, but this was not the purpose of the owners who were not the slightest bit interested why the vessel had been hired.
Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams compared the situation in Herne Bay Steamboat Co to someone who hires a carriage to go and see the Epsom Derby, but the outbreak of some unforeseen epidemic means that the races are cancelled. This makes no difference to the owner of the carriage who will still expect to be paid for the hire of his vehicle.
It will, however, be important to identify the substance or the purpose of the agreement. The cancellation of an event can frustrate the performance of a contract where that event is an absolutely material term of the agreement.
The limits of frustration …
Frustration can only be used to have the contract discharged in situations where neither party is to blame. When one party is to blame for the failure to perform his obligations under the agreement, this represents a breach of contract and the innocent party can raise the appropriate action.
Tsakiroglou v Noblee Thorl GmbH  2 ALL ER 179 the sellers had agreed to transport Sudanese ground nuts from Port Sudan in the Red Sea to Hamburg in Germany. The ship was to take the fastest route to Europe through the Suez Canal. This proved to be impossible because the Canal was closed as a result of military hostilities following the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt causing the Suez Crisis in late 1956. The sellers would have to ship the goods around the alternative route of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. This meant that the distance the ship had to travel from Port Sudan to Hamburg was greatly increased and this would also mean a dramatic increase in the costs of carriage in respect of the goods.
Held: by the House of Lords that a party will still have a duty to perform a contract even if this means that performance is more difficult or expensive than was originally intended by the parties. The closure of the Suez Canal did not mean that the sellers’ duties were discharged by reason of frustration of contract.
Contracts for personal services
Such a contract is discharged by the death of the person who was to perform it. The incapacity of a person who is to perform a contract may discharge it. However, temporary incapacity is not enough unless it affects the performance of the contract in a really serious way. If an employee is killed or permanently incapacitated, it will be very difficult to argue that the employment contract should be allowed to continue. Employees who have had a lengthy prison sentence imposed on them by a criminal court may find it very difficult to argue against the employer’s proposition that the contract of employment has been terminated by reason of frustration.
Some words of warning: the courts may be unwilling to use frustration as a means of terminating an employment contract if other ways of achieving this result are available. This could occur in situations where it is possible for the employer to dismiss the employee entirely fairly by reason of a lack of capability (e.g. on grounds of ill health) as per the Employment Relations Act 1996.
Notable cases on frustration in connection with employment contracts include the following:
Davis Contractors Ltd v Fareham UDC  AC 696
Marshall v Harland & Wolff IRLR90
G F Sharp & Co Ltd v McMillan IRLR 632
The purpose of the contract becomes impossible to perform
As we have seen, a situation involving the physical destruction of the subject-matter of the contract will discharge the parties from performance of their duties by reason of frustration. However, frustration can also occur in situations where physical destruction of the subject-matter of the contract may not be the issue.
Jackson v Union Marine Insurance Co (1874) LR 10 CP 125 the pursuer owned a ship which had been chartered to go with all possible speed from Liverpool to Newport for the purpose of loading a cargo bound for San Francisco. The pursuer had insurance with the defenders to protect himself in the event that the charter might be prevented from being carried out. The vessel was stranded whilst on its way to Newport. It was not refloated for over a month and could not be properly repaired for some time. The charterers hired another ship and the pursuer turned to the insurers. They suggested that the pursuer should sue the charterer for breach.
Held: the fact that the ship was stranded effectively frustrated the agreement’s commercial purpose and, therefore, the charterers were free to go elsewhere. The pursuer had no remedy against the charterers and was in turn entitled to seek compensation under the insurance policy.
We are seeing the introduction of emergency powers legislation across the World in response to COVID-19 and this will undoubtedly have a huge impact on a range of contractual obligations. Many European Union countries have reintroduced border controls and curbs on free movement of persons which would normally be a clear breach of European Treaties (e.g. the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; the Treaty on European Union; and the Schengen Agreement), but these are not normal times. These drastic measures can all be justified on grounds of public security and public health – legitimate derogations or grounds for withdrawal from key EU legal principles. Travel and tourism will obviously be disproportionately affected by these restrictions.
Contracts can become illegal because Parliament introduces legislation to this effect. After the murder of schoolchildren and a teacher at Dunblane Primary School in 1996 by Thomas Hamilton, the British government made it illegal to own particular models of firearms. Therefore, anyone who entered a contract to purchase firearms shortly before the legislation was introduced could not force the supplier to perform the contract. If the buyer insisted on performance of the contract by the seller, the seller would be complying with his contractual duty, but he would also be breaking the law as the contract would be illegal.
Events can also make further or future performance of contracts illegal e.g. the outbreak of war. Two House of Lords’ decisions are excellent authority for this proposition –
Stevenson & Sons Ltd v AG für Cartonnagen Industrie (1918) AC 239 an English company, Stevenson, was in partnership with a German company acting as a sole agent to sell the German company’s goods. By continuing to carry on business with an enemy during wartime (the First World War had broken out), Stevenson would be committing a criminal act and there was no alternative but to have the partnership dissolved (see also Cantiere San Rocco SA v Clyde Shipbuilding & Engineering Co Ltd (1923) SC (HL) 105 where, again, the First World War had a similar effect on a contract between a Scottish company and an Austrian buyer of a ship).
The Coronavirus or COVID-19 is not merely a health issue – it has also become something of a legal minefield for society. This is where knowledge of the circumstances of termination of contractual obligations and performance is vital. The doctrine of frustration, impossibility and supervening illegality are highly relevant to this debate.
Doubtless, the use of force majeure clauses will become more common – especially, if as predicted, we are going to be experiencing further waves of disruption due to this pandemic.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) isn’t just a potential threat to your health; it could also mean that your earnings take a hit.
If you have to take time off from work (i.e. self-isolate yourself) because you have (or might have) been infected by the virus, will you be entitled to receive sick pay from the organisation that you are working for?
It depends very much on your employment status …
… if you are a zero hours worker or genuinely a self-employed person, the answer is an emphatic no.
If you are deemed to be an employee (an individual who works under a contract of service) within the meaning of Section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, you may be fortunate in that you have an entitlement to receive either contractual sick pay or statutory sick pay.
Contractual sick pay
If a contractual sick pay scheme applies to your employment, you might receive, at its fullest extent, 6 months full pay and then 6 months at half pay. This generous arrangement, of course, will not apply from day 1 of the employment and employees will have to build up their continuous service in order to be eligible for the maximum level of contractual sick pay. It is probably the case that an employee with just over a year’s service would receive 1 month at full pay for sickness absence and then 1 month at half pay.
An example of entitlement to contractual sick pay arrangements taken from the Collective Agreement (the National Working Practices Agreement) between Scottish Further Education lecturers and their employers can be seen below:
Statutory sick pay
What about statutory sick pay or SSP? This is relevant in situations where employees are not entitled to receive contractual sick pay.
It’s also worth pointing out that contractual sick pay is often much more generous than SSP and, even then, not all employees will be entitled to receive this benefit because they fall outside the eligibility criteria. The current weekly rate of sickness pay (in March 2020) is £98.25 and could be paid by employers for a maximum of 28 weeks.
Ordinarily, it becomes payable only from 4th day of sickness absence, but as of Wednesday 4th March 2020, the UK Government has announced that employees who self-isolate themselves because of suspected Coronavirus infection, will be paid SSP from day 1 of their sickness absence.
This is a temporary measure which will apply only for the duration of the current COVID-19 emergency, but people who are off sick with a medical condition other than the virus will also be entitled to benefit from these changes.
See links below to articles on the BBC website about sickness pay entitlement and COVID-19:
The change in Government policy will not be extended to the self-employed; and to zero hours workers (who will not be able to meet the threshold conditions for eligibility). Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) has stated that as many as 2 million workers may not be eligible for SSP under the current system.
There has been some concern expressed that individuals in these categories may continue to go to work – if they have the virus or suspect as much – because they will not receive SSP during their absence.
Eligibility criteria for SSP
In 2019-20, in order to qualify for SSP you must be an employee earning at least £118 per week or £512 per month (before tax). This is known as the Lower Earnings Limit.
In April 2020, SSP will rise to £95.85 per week, but individuals’ earnings must fall within any of the following bands in order to qualify:
£120 per week
£520 per month
£6,240 per year
Again, this will mean that many zero hours contract workers will simply fail to qualify for SSP payments.
More problems …
There is also another complication concerning eligibility for sickness pay which the COVID-19 outbreak has raised:
Let’s assume that you do qualify for either contractual sick pay or SSP, but you have decided to take the precautionary measure of self-isolation so as not to expose your colleagues to potential risk.
It may be that you have recently returned from a destination such as China or Italy where the virus has been particularly prevalent and you decide to play it safe by not going into work. You contact your HR Department or employer to inform them of your decision; you are thanked for being extremely considerate and responsible; and then you are told that you are not entitled to receive sick pay because you haven’t actually been diagnosed with the virus.
Matt Hancock MP, UK Government Minister for Health, thinks that current legislation does cover such situations and individuals who take precautionary measures, as outlined above, should benefit from sick pay provisions.
With all due respect to Mr Hancock, what he thinks and what current legislation or a contract of employment states might be entirely different realities. That said, Mr Hancock does have the support of the highly regarded Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) which is recommending that employers pay self-isolating employees who have taken such a precautionary measure (see link below).
Clearly, COVID-19 is presenting a number of challenges to traditional practices or orthodoxies in the field of employment law. This is a serious issue given that recent estimates are predicting that up to 20% of the UK workforce could be in danger of contracting the virus and, consequently, they will be absent from work.
In some respects, the UK Government has been caught napping on the issue of extending employment protection e.g. entitlement to sick pay to people who do not have a contract of service and the COVID-19 outbreak has really exposed this shortcoming.
As Jonathan Rennie of law firm, TLT, had noted (as recently as this week) the UK Government has failed to implement any of the recommendations of the Taylor Review which favoured extended employment protection to workers who did not have a contract of service. It is somewhat ironic that the virus outbreak has forced the Government to break cover and extend some employment protection rights.
A link to an article on the BBC website about the predicted impact of COVID-19 on the UK workforce can be found below: