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University of Sunderland

Employment law: protecting the UK’s workers

Posted on: July 8, 2022
Man in a suit sat opposite someone looking at a contract

Employment law, or employment legislation, is an area of civil law concerned with the various legal entitlements that all employees have – including conduct, rights and benefits – in relation to their employment or employer.

It exists to regulate employee-employer relationships and interactions, ensuring that fair and due process is followed across all aspects of employment – from recruitment to dismissals. In the absence of employment laws that govern the workplace, employees could experience unfavourable or unfair treatment at the hands of their employers, with no method to resolve any issues that occur. It also prevents the inverse from occurring; for example, an employee breaking the terms of a contract by ignoring a non-compete clause or other restrictive covenants.

What are the different areas of employment law?

The employment relationship – the relationship between employee and employer – is governed by statutes and acts within employment law.

They cover a broad range of issues regarding both work processes and the working environment, such as:

  • age discrimination
  • bullying and harassment
  • disability
  • discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality or gender
  • dismissal and employee grievances
  • employment contracts
  • holiday pay
  • minimum wage
  • parental leave
  • redundancy
  • working hours

There are several main employment laws in the UK which address specific aspects of employment law and the aforementioned issues. These include the:

  • Equality Act 2010, which prevents discrimination in the recruitment process and in the workplace by ensuring protected characteristics are not used as a basis for decision-making, other than to adapt arrangements in order to accommodate them
  • Employment Rights Act 1996, which protects the rights of employees in situations involving unfair dismissal, dismissal, redundancy, and parental leave – including both maternity leave and paternity leave
  • Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA), which places a duty of care on employers to protect employee health, safety and welfare at work
  • Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), which regulates how employers store employee, customer and other sensitive information
  • Working Time Regulations (1998) and The Working Time (Amendment) Regulations 2007, which concerns safe working hours and rest breaks and the holiday allowances that employees are entitled to.

These pieces of legislation are subject to annual changes, ranging from the minor to the more significant.

ACAS provides up-to-date employment law advice and information about HR processes and good working practices for both employees – across a range of employment types, including self-employed and agency workers – and employers. It’s critical to adhere to employment law in the UK: failing to, and therefore violating employee rights, can enable workers to make employment tribunal claims.

What rights does an employee have?

Everyone has rights in the workplace, although they may vary by employment status. An individual’s exact rights are derived from a combination of their employment contract and their statutory rights.

There are basic employment rights that exist for employees, and employment law seeks to protect these. However, only employees who work for a company or an individual employer are entitled to statutory employment rights, such as statutory sick pay, the right to written terms which outline job rights and responsibilities, paid holidays and payslips, and minimum notice periods. Employers also have a right to ensure that employees are provided with rights such as a safe, healthy working environment. Freelancers, agency workers and those who are self-employed are not entitled to the same rights as employees, however they do still have the right to be paid the minimum wage and be safe from discrimination.

The coronavirus pandemic brought employee rights discussions to the forefront as the UK navigated new issues of workplace safety, rules regarding self-isolation, testing and vaccination status, furlough and sick pay, working from home arrangements and more.

What is the difference between employment law and labour law?

While often used interchangeably, there are fundamental differences between employment law and labour law and it’s important for employees, employers and legal representatives to distinguish between the two.

Labour laws have a narrower scope than employment laws and are designed to protect collective employee rights, as well as the rights and interests of employers and unions. They are concerned with governing the relationship between trade unions and collective bargaining agreements, ensuring that rights and privileges are not infringed upon. As such, labour laws aim to shield groups from victimisation or harassment – for example, ensuring workers receive the minimum wage and guaranteeing the right to strike.

Whereas labour laws concern employees as a whole, employment laws exist to protect individual employees. They govern aspects such as employment contracts, wages, whistleblowing, working hours, privacy, discrimination and harassment.

What is an employment contract?

An employee’s agreement to work for an employer, and an employer’s agreement to pay an employee for the work, constitutes a contract of employment and employment status – even if nothing exists in writing.

This contract establishes certain rights and obligations – known as contractual terms – for both employee and employer; for example, an employee has the right to be paid for their work, and an employer has the right to provide an employee with reasonable work instructions and for the work to be carried out accordingly. These rights are additional to those enshrined in law: while an employee and employer can agree whatever contractual terms they wish, the terms cannot offer fewer rights than those dictated by the law. Common examples of contractual employment terms that employees and employers may discuss are salary, working hours, part-time or flexible working arrangements, and benefits.

A breach of contract occurs when either an employee or an employee does not abide by a contractual term.

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Learn more about employment law by studying an LLM with the University of Sunderland. Designed for individuals from both legal and non-legal backgrounds, our online LLM Master of Laws programme provides a flexible, comprehensive legal education to support your next career step.

Whatever path you’re following – from training to become a lawyer, specialising within your current legal career, or seeking to gain legal understanding and apply legal advice within your business environment – our experts will familiarise you with critical issues across law theory, doctrine and practice. Your studies will encompass employment law, contract law, dispute resolution, public law, family law, tort law, land law and more.

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