Jeremy Corbyn’s Plan for Compulsory Collective Bargaining

The best job title I ever had was Head of Employment Law at the CIA. The novelty never wore off. The Chemical Industries Association (well what did you think?) was a really interesting place to work – and I was there at a really interesting time. Labour had just been swept to power and one of its key manifesto commitments was to introduce a right to union recognition ‘where a majority of the relevant workforce vote in a ballot for the union to represent them’.

I spent just over a year monitoring the legislation as it went through Parliament and lobbying (rather ineffectually) on behalf of employers in the chemical industry – many of whom were distinctly worried about being forced to deal with trade unions. There were lots of CBI committee meetings as we went over the proposed law line by line, proposing amendments along the way.

The law that emerged was deliberately dull and complicated. I challenge you to to read through it in one sitting! (seriously, don’t try to do that). The idea was that collective bargaining worked best when both the union and the employer reached a voluntary agreement that suited their particular situation and the procedure was designed to facilitate that at every stage – with the Central Arbitration Committee empowered to rule on areas of dispute.

There are certainly things that unions would like to change about the current scheme. A union has to work hard to convince the CAC that a majority of members are likely to support recognition before a ballot is
organised – and a recognition ballot is only valid if at least 40 per cent of the proposed  bargaining unit vote for recognition (sound familiar?). There is also a loophole for employers who can agree to recognise a sweetheart union and forestall a claim from one that will give them a less comfortable ride. On the other hand, employers have always been worried about the CAC ordering recognition without a ballot where union membership has reached 50 per cent of the bargaining unit.

In truth, the law was always a compromise between the interests of employers and the rights of employees and unions. The Labour Government went out of its way to design a system that employers could live with. They learned from the earlier trade union recognition scheme that collapsed under the fervent opposition of some employers and which was repealed almost as soon as the Thatcher Government came to power.

The statutory recognition procedure has now been up and running for more than 15 years (oh where has my youth gone?) and neither the Coalition nor the Conservative Government have shown any real interest in repealing or amending it. For some on the left, that in itself will be a damning criticism. The procedure chugs along nicely, rarely attracting much outside attention. The latest annual report of the CAC shows that so far there have been 955 applications for union recognition with the CAC ordering recognition in 281 cases.  To be clear, that is not 281 cases in the past year – that is counting since the scheme came in. So while the procedure has certainly resulted in an increased number of union recognition agreements, it has hardly been transformative. The level of collective bargaining coverage in the UK remains at just 29% – well towards the bottom of the EU table. Even that figure is kept artificially high by the relatively high proportion of recognition in the public sector (63%) compared with just 16 per cent in the private sector

So it is not surprising that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would want to revisit the subject. Though it is fair to say that his policy still needs some work on the fine detail. In Saturday’s Guardian he wrote:

Unions such as the GMB are resisting the race to the bottom in the labour market by representing Uber drivers, for example, in their fight to win holiday and sick pay rights. But the best way to guarantee fair pay is through strengthening unions’ ability to bargain collectively. That’s why it should be mandatory for all employers wit
h over 250 staff to bargain collectively with recognised trade unions.

Let’s leave aside the fact that a law based on the number of staff you have can be a bit tricky when we really don’t know who counts as ‘staff’ – particularly when it comes to companies like jeremy-corbynUber. This is, on the face of it, a pretty radical proposition. The Guardian added this:

Aides to the Labour leader said a Corbyn government would “repeal” 1999 union legislation that was passed by a Labour
government to introduce a new French-style framework of union rights.

I’m not sure that emphasising the French experience would be a great way of winning over sceptical voters to this policy. But my main problem is the practicality of imposing a law along the lines Jeremy Corbyn appears to be suggesting.

The Fairness at Work Agenda pursued by the Blair Government was based on a form of industrial democracy. The idea was that the workforce should be represented by a union if that was what the majority of them wanted. That, in essence, is the organising principle of the whole scheme. If that is to be swept away then are we left with the idea that employees will be represented by a union whether they want to be or not? You may think it odd that employees might be against the idea. Workers are generally better off when collective bargaining is in place, so why wouldn’t they want it? But the truth is that many employees will be sceptical or think that they may as individuals lose out in favour of some of their colleagues. Will Labour really go to the polls suggesting that employers should be forced to recognise trade unions even where there is no support for the union within the workforce itself?

That is essentially the French experience where collective bargaining coverage is extremely wide but actual union membership is just 8% – one of the lowest in Europe. The key difference is that collective bargaining is part of the regulatory system in France, with legally binding sector-level agreements. It might be worth pointing out that a few years ago John Hendy QC and Professor Keith Ewing (leading employment lawyers of the left) proposed a manifesto for collective bargaining that focused very much on sector-level agreements. This doesn’t seem to be what Jeremy Corbyn is now proposing, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see his thinking move in that direction. That would still be an incredibly radical policy and a major departure from the voluntarist model of UK industrial relations that dominated the 20th Century.

So far, however,  all we have is a line in a newspaper column. There is a long way to go before a fully-fledged policy can emerge. Elsewhere in the Guardian article Corbyn references workplace 2020 which he describes as a ‘national conversation with the self-employed, business and the public, supported by the trade unions, to develop a new settlement for business and the workforce’. That sounds great, but as far as I can tell, Workplace 2020 hasn’t actually done anything yet – as you’ll see if you follow the link above.

Ultimately though, I just can’t see the UK adopting a system that divorces the rights of a trade union to recognition from its level of support within a a particular employer. And that is only one issue that will have to be addressed. Leaving aside the question of what the employees in the business actually want, introducing compulsory collective bargaining is far from straightforward. It is all very well telling an employer that it has to recognise a trade union – but which union? What if there are different unions representing different sections of the workforce? Will there need to be separate recognition agreements for each union or single table bargaining or will one union have to win out? Will the recognition have to cover the whole workforce? What about senior managers? What about non-unionised professionals? Will the employer be entitled to agree individual terms with individual employees or will it have to apply a collective agreement to the whole workforce? Could a group of employees demand to opt out of collective bargaining? How do you force an employer to bargain in good faith?

Any new Government is limited in what it can do in a subject like employment law – even the modest recognition scheme introduced under Blair took a huge amount of work and Parliamentary time. A completely new system of employment law and industrial relations might not be the best priority for a new Government given everything else that is likely to be going on.

And one final question. Is it really a good idea to adopt a policy that will allow the Labour Party to be painted as a 1970s throwback in hock to the trade unions? It is all very well playing fantasy employment law in left-wing think tanks – but the role of the Labour Party is surely to come up with practical proposals that might actually be implemented following a general election victory.

Basically this just isn’t the sort of proposal you make if you seriously expect to be in a position to have to implement it.

Which is quite telling, I think.


On Tuesday morning Owen Smith published his manifesto for employment rights. It is interesting that he makes rather more specific proposals than Jeremy Corbyn about amending the statutory scheme to make it easier for unions to gain recognition. In particular he places some emphasis on sectoral collective bargaining which suggests that he is at least aware of the Hendy/Ewing work on this area.

He does however set out an absolutely massive shopping list including full employment rights from day one of employment and a return to a Wages Council system to prevent exploitation in vulnerable sectors. There is more policy detail here than we have seen from Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – which is presumably the deliberate point that he is making. However what he sets out is a huge reform program. If that was front and centre of the Labour manifesto then improved employment rights would need to be the issue that electorate cares about the most for Labour to stand a chance of winning. In a leadership election sweeping and radical proposals might be what is called for. But whatever the future Labour leadership, they will have to be a bit more focussed when it comes to formulating a plan for Government.

Posted in trade unions | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Deliveroo, the ‘gig’ economy and employment rights

Can it really be that Deliveroo has a clause in its couriers’ contracts forbidding them from challenging their status in the Employment Tribunal? It seems that part of the agreement that a courier signs provides:

“You further warrant that neither you nor anyone acting on your behalf will present any claim in the employment tribunal or any civil court in which it is contended that you are either an employee or a worker,”

Deliveroo don’t seem to be denying the story as such – but are hiding behind the rather unattractive argument that the contracts were written with the help of ‘legal experts’. If that is so then I’m sure that the advice that went along with the draft was ‘well you can put this in the contract, but it won’t have any legal effect’.

Any employment lawyer worth his or her salt will tell you that s.203 of the Employment Rights Act renders any contractual clause void in so far as it purports to prevent an individual from bringing an employment tribunal claim (s.144 of the Equality Act does the same thing for discrimination claims). No competent lawyer would have failed to point out to Deliveroo that its proposed clause was likely to be totally unenforceable.

Presumably Deliveroo just didn’t care. The purpose of the clause is clearly to deter claims in the first place. But the fact that they think that they may need to do that seems telling. The press report that Deliveroo couriers are self employed. But are they really? If Deliveroo are really confident on the point, why are they so keen to ensure that it doesn’t get tested?

The truth is that the issue is a complicated one. The question of who does and does not enjoy employment protection rights is at the heart of what is effectively a decades old arms race being conducted between the courts and a certain kind of employer keen to avoid any legal obligations towards those whose work generates their profit.

Employment status and employment rights

Because if you can ensure that the people who work for you are not your employees, then you can avoid the irritating obligation to behave reasonably when dismissing them, as well as a host of other rights from redundancy payments to shared parental leave. If you can go further and show that they are not even ‘workers’ (someone contracted to perform work for you, but who is not in business on their own account) then you have the added bonus of not having to give them any paid annual leave or pay them the National Minimum Wage.

So there is clearly an incentive for employers to create relationships that don’t qualify for employment rights. But doing that takes a certain amount of ingenuity. You might think for instance that you could just insert a clause in the contract to say ‘you agree that you are not an employee or a worker’. But that won’t be enough. You can’t change the nature of something by calling it something else. As Lord Templeman famously said in Street v Mountford (a landlord and tenant case):

The manufacture of a five pronged implement for manual digging results in a fork even if the manufacturer, unfamiliar with the English language, insists that he intended to make and has made a spade.

I am writing this on an electronic device designed to process information at high speed. I can call it an ‘abacus’ if I want, but that won’t alter the fact that it is a computer. The computer is resting on a flat surface supported by four legs. It is a table, even if I put a big sign on it saying ‘this is a chair’ (and so on…).

So if you want to employ someone without any employment law strings attached, then you need to go beyond the label. You need to be able to point to some feature of the contract which means that it can’t be an employment contract.

The features to concentrate on are the obligation to provide personal service and a rather slippery concept called ‘mutuality of obligation’. This essentially amounts to a requirement that an employment contract must entail some obligation on the employer to provide work and some obligation on the employee to accept it. If there is insufficient mutuality then the individual will not be an employee. If there is no mutuality of obligation at all, then there will not even be a contract. The individual will not be a worker, but just someone who has occasionally done a bit of work around the place.

The trouble with mutuality is that it is too easy for the Tribunal to look at what happens in practice and discern an obligation from the way in which the parties have behaved. If your contract says ‘we are not obliged to offer any work and you are not obliged to accept any work that may be offered’ that is all very well, but if in fact you offer 35 hours a week which the employee invariably accepts then the Tribunal may well be tempted to find that the contract has at some stage morphed into an employment relationship.

The requirement for personal service can be more fruitful. If you give ’employees’ the right to provide a substitute instead of turning up and doing the work themselves then they are under no obligation to provide you with personal service. Jackpot! They are neither employees nor workers and you can treat them as appallingly as you like. Well done.

The downside is that the Tribunal might not believe that you really mean it when you say they can provide a substitute. They might find that the substitution clause is a sham in that neither side ever envisaged that it could really be invoked – and that it was simply placed there in an attempt to avoid even the most basic obligations to treat workers with some decency and respect.

Bogus self-employment

Because there really are employers out there who are engaging in a deliberate pretence that their employees are self employed simply to avoid their obligations as an employer. For every case that reaches the Tribunal and is exposed as a sham, there must many thousands of others where the employee simply accepts the employers assurances that they are self employed and do not qualify for employment rights.

You might detect a cynical tone to this post. But honestly, look at the Supreme Court decision in Autoclenz v Belcher and tell me that my cynicism is unwarranted. In that case Autoclenz argued (unsuccessfully) that people employed to valet cars were self employed sub-contractors even though everything about their day-today work screamed employment. Or take the case of Protectacoat Firthglow Ltd v Szilagyi where the employer went so far as to make employees form a ‘legal’ partnership with a friend before they were given any work – because the case law had said that partners in a firm were not employees (the ruse didn’t work in this case and the Court of Appeal held that the partnership contract was a sham).

But on top of this run of the mill ‘bogus’ self-employment, the ‘gig’ economy and the ‘uberisation’ of the workforce gives many more opportunities for employment law to be sidestepped. If you have a pool of ‘workers’ who can log into an app and choose from a range of work that the ’employer’ has made generally available then you really can avoid any mutuality of obligation. The case being brought by Leigh Day and Co on behalf of Uber drivers is therefore potentially very important. What will the courts make of these new working arrangements and can they be made to fit within our employment law system?

Employment rights in the new economy

If not, then we should revisit the whole idea of what it is to be an employee or a worker. Those concepts have been developed in an era of factories and office blocks with regular shifts and starting times, where individuals must do the work they are given. But the new generation of ‘gig’ workers are in no less need of protection than traditional employees. Indeed the precarious nature of their work means that they are even more vulnerable to sharp practice and unreasonable treatment.

These are issues that the government needs to grapple with. It is worth noting that under the coalition, a review of employment law status was undertaken to address these issues. As I understand it a lot of work was done and somewhere in the vaults of what remains of the Department of Business there will be a comprehensive piece of work looking at all of these problems and suggesting a way forward. Whether that will ever see the light of day, however, remains to be seen.

In her speech before entering 10 Downing Street, Theresa May said:

If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security…

I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.

If these words are to mean anything, then the Government needs to ensure that these new ways of working do not leave vulnerable workers unprotected against exploitation and unreasonable treatment. I’m sure Deliveroo want to treat their couriers well – but it is obviously hard to resist the temptation of creating a relationship in which they are not obliged to. Removing that temptation is one way in which Government can help this new sector develop in a way that benefits everyone.


Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

BREXIT and strike ballots.

This is not a post about the employment law implications of Brexit. Obviously there are plenty of those out there – and I’m sure I’ll be writing a few over the weeks months and years that follow. I suspect that it is a subject that will just keep giving.

This post is about a very specific point about the Government’s mandate to make Brexit happen – and a trade union’s mandate to call strike action.

Waiting for the Trade Union Act

The Trade Union Act received Royal Assent back in May – but it still hasn’t been brought into force. We are waiting for Commencement Orders which may bring different provisions in at different times. Some provisions are not yet ready to be brought into force because we need detailed Regulations setting out the details.

Take section 3 for example. That is the provision which requires industrial action ballots by those delivering ‘important public services’ to be supported by at least 40 per cent of those entitled to vote (as well as having the 50 per cent turnout required by S.2). The Act does not define important public services. That is left to Regulations which are yet to be drafted. All we know is that the specifies that the Regulations are limited to the areas of health, education, fire, transport, border security and the decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of nuclear waste and spent fuel.

If course it is likely that officials at the Department for Business are a bit preoccupied with other matters at the moment, so producing these Regulations will not be a huge priority for them.

But I think that there is a bigger problem. There is an awkward fact about this provision that, If I were a Minister, I would not want to draw attention to.

The 40 per cent threshold

Lets do some maths.

Suppose you are a union in an important public service and you hold a nationwide ballot to ask your members to support industrial action. Let’s say the ballot goes really well and gets a turnout of  – let’s pick figure at random – 72%.

But suppose the issue is quite controversial and not all members support it. Let’s say they support industrial action but not by that much. Perhaps with just – oh I don’t know – 52% of those voting ticking the ‘yes’ box to  support action.

To see whether strike action would be legal we need to see that 52% expressed as a percentage of those entitled to vote. What is 52% of 72%? Well its just 37.4 per cent.

So as far as this Government is concerned, a ballot where 52% support strike action on a turnout 72%  would not give sufficient democratic legitimacy to justify train drivers introducing a work to rule or teachers holding a one-day strike. However we are about to  put our economy, security and place in the world in jeopardy to give effect to a referendum where, on a 72% turnout, just 52% voted to leave.

Doesn’t that seem a bit ridiculous?

If I were a Minister, I would not be keen to introduce the Regulations that will give effect to s.3. In fact, I would want everyone to forget that s.3 even existed.  If the timetable for implementing the Trade Union Act were to slip somewhat, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.


Posted in BREXIT, EU law, Industrial action, Trade Union Bill | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

New Zealand bans zero hours contracts? Not exactly….

So New Zealand has banned zero-hours contracts. As Jeremy Corbyn says…

Obviously I wouldn’t be writing about this if it was as straightforward as that. New Zealand hasn’t banned zero-hours contracts. At least, not exactly. But what they have done is interesting and worth taking a look at.

It’s always tricky wading into other people’s legal systems. Without knowing how a new law fits within the established framework and how the overall system operates its easy to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. So any New Zealand experts out there should feel free to correct me in the comments section. But as far as I can tell the relevant Bill is the new Employment Relations Amendment Bill no 3 which was passed on Thursday 10 March.

The New Zealand ‘Availability Provision’

The Bill (or at least the part we are interested in) inserts new provisions into the Employment Relations Act 2000. In its provisions on hours of work it requires employment contracts or collective agreements to specify the number of guaranteed hours of work that the employee is entitled to (S.67C). But it does not set a minimum. Employers are perfectly free to specify that there are no guaranteed hours of work.

But here here is the good bit.

S.67E Availability Provision

(1) In this section and section 67EA, an availability provision means a provision in an employment agreement under which—

(a) the employee’s performance of work is conditional on the     employer making work available to the employee; and

  (c) (sic) the employee is required to be available to accept any work that the employer makes available.

So here the Bill is seeking to regulate the extent to which an employer can require an employee to be available for work while not being guaranteed it.

(2) An availability provision may only—

(a)  be included in an employment agreement that specifies agreed hours of work and that includes guaranteed hours of work among those agreed hours; and

(b)  relate to a period for which an employee is required to be available that is in addition to those guaranteed hours of work.

That means that if you have no guaranteed hours, you cannot require an employee to be available for work. If you offer work without guaranteeing any, then the employee must be free to refuse any work that is offered. That particular kind of zero-hours contract is indeed being banned.

But can an employer get around this ban by simply offering a token amount of work – say one hour a week? Well, they have thought of that. The Bill goes on…

(3) An availability provision must not be included in an employment agreement unless—

(a) the employer has genuine reasons based on reasonable grounds for including the availability provision and the number of hours of work specified in that provision; and

(b) the availability provision provides for the payment of reasonable compensation to the employee for making himself or herself available to perform work under the provision.

(3A)  An availability provision that is not included in an employment agreement in accordance with subsection (3) is not enforceable against the employee

In other words, a contract with minimum guaranteed hours  – whether that is one hour a week or forty hours a week – cannot require the performance of additional hours unless there are reasonable grounds for doing so and the contract provides adequate compensation for the employee being available. This is about much more than zero-hours contracts; it is about employment relationships where the obligation on the employee to be available for work exceed the employer’s obligation to offer it. That seems rather neat.

To tie this altogether, the Bill specifies that employees may refuse to do work in excess of the minimum guarantee if the employer does not have a properly justified ‘admissibility provision’ providing adequate compensation. There are also the expected rights not to be subjected to a detriment for refusing additional work.

Finally, the Bill also provides for employees to be compensated if their employer cancels a shift at short notice.

Without knowing much about the employment law system of New Zealand, I would say that this is a radical measure that will indeed go some way to addressing the imbalance in some employment contracts. But it only bans zero-hours contracts if what you mean by that term is a contract where the employer is not obliged to offer any work, but the employee is obliged to accept work offered by the employer. It does not address contracts in which the employer accepts that just as it is not obliged to offer work, the employee is free to refuse it. If that is what you mean by a zero hours contract, then New Zealand has not banned them at all.

What about the UK?

The New Zealand reform could easily be adopted in the UK. Indeed the structure of the law is already in place. The Small Business Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 sought to  ban exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts. But were they ever really a problem in the first place? I doubt many employers really cared whether their zero-hours employee was doing work for another employer. But I suspect many are concerned if he or she is not available for work. Extending the law along New Zealand lines would be quite straightforward and would mean that an employer would be incentivised to guarantee as many hours as possible, knowing that if more hours are needed the employee would be free to refuse them.

But of course the effectiveness of that depends on the state of the labour market – and the bargaining power that the two sides to the employment relationship can exert. An employer may be very happy to give an employee complete freedom to refuse work if it is clear that the employee needs to take whatever work is offered. The freedom to turn work down may be a rather hollow one for an employee trying to scrape together enough hours of work to make ends meet.

This is not to denigrate the New Zealand law – it seems perfectly sensible. For what it’s worth I think the Government in the UK should look to do something similar (place your bets). But has New Zealand banned zero hours contracts? Well, not exactly.

Posted in Uncategorized, Zero Hours COntracts | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

‘Bosses Free to Spy on Emails’? Well no, not really

Sometimes even a rather routine employment law case can capture the imagination of the press and become a big story. This week the European Court of Human Rights found that there was no breach of Article 8 (respect for private life) when an employer read personal messages sent by an employee on a work-owned Yahoo Messenger account.

The story has made the front page of the Sun and the Daily Mail. Surprisingly they both seem to disapprove of the decision – perhaps because they think that the Court has conferred a right to ‘snoop’ that wasn’t previously there.

The Article from the Daily Mail opens:

BOSSES were yesterday given the right to spy on staff emails.

In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights granted them full access to personal messages sent from company computers or smartphones.

This is wrong. Hopelessly, massively and completely wrong. The European Court of Human Rights does not go about telling other countries what their laws should be. It simply considers whether there has been a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. If it finds that there is no breach of the Convention if employers spy on employees (it hasn’t, of course, but more of that later) then that does not mean that employers in the UK are be free to do that. We have our own laws on this (the Data Protection Act and the Employment Rights Act for instance) in which the European Court of Human Rights has no interest if they do not involve a breach of the Convention. This ruling does absolutely nothing to change UK law – you might have thought that the press would be pleased about that.

In any event, the Court has categorically not said that employers are free to monitor the private communications of employees. Nobody reading the case could possibly come close to thinking that. Let’s look at what the case is actually about.

Personal use of a Messenger App

In the Case of Barbulescu v Romania the employee was asked by his employer to create a Yahoo Messenger account to respond to enquiries from clients. The Company had a rule which stated:

“It is strictly forbidden to disturb order and discipline within the company’s premises and especially … to use computers, photocopiers, telephones, telex and fax machines for personal purposes.”

I suspect that that loses something in translation – but I like the idea of having a rule against disturbing order and discipline. However the key point is that the rule explicitly banned the use of computers (and telex machines!) for personal reasons.

The employee was told that his use of Yahoo Messenger had been monitored over the course of week and that this showed he had been using the account for personal reasons. He replied in writing denying this and said that he had only used it for professional purposes. In response the employer provided him with a 45 page transcript showing his personal use of the App.  That transcript also included 5 messages to his fiancee that were sent using a personal account. When he was fired, he claimed that the decision was ‘null and void’ because, by accessing his communications, the employer had violated his right to privacy set out in the Romanian Constitution and Criminal Code.

The domestic court dismissed his claim, holding that the employer was entitled to monitor the use of work computers to check that work was being done properly and that looking specifically at the messages sent by the employee was the only way of checking his claim that he had only used Messenger for professional purposes. He lost his appeal and then brought a claim in the European Court of Human Rights.

He relied on Article 8 of the Convention which says:

Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

Essentially, the Court held that there had been no breach of the Convention. But they categorically did not say that employers are entitled to monitor the private communications of employees. Indeed, they found that the claim was ‘admissible’ in that monitoring of private communications by an employer did come within the scope of Article 8 – especially since some of the monitoring picked up private communications between the employee and his fiancee.

Reasonableness and proportionality

The context of this particular case was important. The employee was not bringing an independent claim that his human rights had been violated by the state; he was using Article 8 to challenge his dismissal by a private employer. The Court’s task was to consider whether Romanian employment law struck a fair balance between his rights under Article 8 and the interests of the employer. They noted that the initial monitoring of the employee’s messages was done on the assumption that they would only contain professional information – as private communications were forbidden. Furthermore, the 45 page transcript had only been relied upon in response to the employee’s false assertion that he had only used Messenger for professional reasons. The Court held that:

it is not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that the employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours.

And that’s it. The court does not say that there is no right of privacy in the workplace. Indeed they only took the case on because it has been clearly established that there is. With Article 8 it all comes down to a question of balance and proportion and the extent to which an individual has a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ in relation to what they are doing. The crucial factors in this case were that all personal use of a computer was strictly forbidden and that the employee insisted that he had not broken that rule. The monitoring carried out by the employer was not about the content of the messages but about the fact that they existed. Their use was restricted to the question of whether the employee had committed misconduct and the Court held that that was reasonable.

Monitoring in UK workplaces

This is a nice case that will certainly find its way into my latest employment law update. But it is not a surprising outcome and it does not change the advice that I would have given employers about monitoring staff emails. In the UK that comes mainly under the Data Protection Act and the Information Commissioner has a detailed Code of Practice on handling employee data. Its worth a read (Part 3 deals with monitoring at work) and I don’t think it needs to be changed as a result of this case.

For what it’s worth, I would identify three key considerations when monitoring employee’s communications:

  • Do you have a clear business need for the monitoring?
  • Is the level and intrusiveness of the monitoring proportionate to  that business need?
  • Have you made it clear to employees  how and why monitoring might take place?

So here’s my suggested headline for any tabloid editors reading this (as if):


Not exactly the Daily Mail house style is it?

Posted in Privacy and Monitoring | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Junior Doctors and the Trade Union Bill

Barring a dramatic development (such as a  legal challenge), tomorrow’s strike of junior doctors is going to go ahead. In fact it cannot be postponed because eight weeks has now passed since the ballot was held and after that period is ‘ceases to be effective’ (see s.234 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act if you’re keen enough). This means that if the strike tomorrow was called off, the BMA would have to hold a fresh ballot before reinstating the action.

Oddly, the provision which requires action to be taken with four weeks of the ballot (which can be extended to eight weeks with the agreement of the employer) is set to be replaced by the Trade Union Bill which comes before the House of Lords for its second reading today.

If the Trade Union Bill were  in force then the ballot would actually remain effective for four months rather than a maximum of eight weeks – but there would be one very major catch.

Under the current law, provided that some industrial action is taken within the first four weeks (or eight if the time limit is extended) then the union is free to continue calling industrial action for as long as the dispute remains. It is not unheard of for a strike mandate to remain valid for some years while the parties edge towards a settlement or lapse into a weary truce – and there is no need for the union to hold a fresh ballot if it wants to call more action. Currently we have a live ballot in relation to schools where the NUT ballot was held as far back as 2012. The Fire Brigades Union is also still in a dispute where the ballot was held in 2012 and the RMT has an ongoing dispute in relation to night working on the London Tube where the ballot was held in June last year.

The Conservative Party manifesto specifically addressed this issue. It said that a Conservative Government would:

ensure strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballots conducted years before

But in fact the Bill goes much further than that. Clause 8 says that:

Industrial action that is regarded as having the support of a ballot shall cease to be so regarded at the end of the period of four months beginning with the date of the ballot.

What this means is that once voting in the ballot has closed (that is ‘the date of the ballot’ under s.246) the union has just four months to take its industrial action and must hold a fresh ballot for any action taking place after that period. This time limit includes the time needed to verify the results of the ballot, communicate that result to the employer, give 14 days notice of the action and carry out any further negotiations with the employer aimed at resolving the dispute. It is not possible to extend the period for any reason. Once the four months are up then no further action can be taken without a fresh ballot.

In an article for XpertHR last year I argued that this new provision was bad for industrial relations, would undermine attempts to settle disputes and lead to unions taking more action than they otherwise would have done. I still think that. I don’t think that there is any need for the Trade Union Bill at all, but it has now been passed by the House of Commons and since it is implementing a manifesto commitment, the Salisbury Convention dictates that the Lords cannot oppose it. There won’t even be a vote after today’s second reading debate.

Amendments however, are a different matter – especially if they would bring the Bill more closely in line with the Government’s manifesto. So just in case there are any Peers of the Realm reading this (you never know) can I suggest an amendment that would go a long way to to avoiding that harm that this provision might otherwise do?

In Clause 8, line 14: replace ‘four months’  with ‘twelve months’

That would stop ballots running on for ‘years’ just as the Conservative manifesto promises, but would at least allow a reasonable period of time for the dispute to play out without forcing the union to take industrial action in a single burst of disruption. If that isn’t accepted then at the very least let’s allow the parties to agree an extension of the original four months to allow talks to take place. I’ll even suggest some drafting:

In Clause 8, line 14: after four months insert ‘or such longer duration not exceeding 12 months as is agreed between the union and the members’ employer’

Surely it makes sense that if the parties want to continue talking, the union should be able, without prejudicing its own position, to suspend its industrial action in the hope that a settlement can be reached?

The Trade Union Bill is a bad Bill but there is no point in just whinging about it. The House of Lords cannot stop it, but they can make it better. I’m happy to help!

PS It’s worth pointing out that the ‘4 month rule’ introduced by the Bill will not apply to ballots that have already opened by the time the Bill becomes law – so action by junior doctors, teachers, firefighters and others will be able to continue on the basis of their original ballot.  

Posted in Industrial action, Trade Union Bill | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

USA v Nolan: Why America must be kicking itself


Dozens of generals and CIA types sit around a huge table. Uniformed flunkies are busying themselves in the background, carrying messages, whispering in the ears of the great men who have gathered to meet the president. Around them huge screens glow with maps showing the positions of warships; the potential trajectories of missiles. There is an air of urgent and important business.

They all rise when the President arrives and when everyone has settled he gets straight down to business. 

Dr StrangelovePRESIDENT: Gentlemen, we all know that the world has changed. We need to focus our resources on the Far East and scale back our commitments in Western Europe. For instance we seem to be running a ‘watercraft repair centre’ in a place called Hampshire over in England. I want to close that and instead open a new – yes General?

GENERAL: (his hand raised) Well Mr President, it’s an interesting idea, but we’d better not rush into this. We’ll need to hear what Mrs Nolan has to say first.

PRESIDENT: Forgive me, its hard to keep up with European politics, who is Mrs Nolan?

GENERAL: She works on the base sir. She’s a budget assistant.

PRESIDENT: You’ve lost me General

GENERAL: Well sir, she’s a civilian employee on the base and if we close it down she will likely lose her job. Under UK law we have to consult with the workforce representatives about ways in which we can avoid making people redundant.

PRESIDENT: Oh well fair enough. I wouldn’t want to make a decision about the geopolitical distribution of American military resources without hearing what a budget assistant in Hampshire thinks about it. She may have some useful suggestions about how I can deter China’s territorial encroachment of the South China Seas without starting a new cold war. Do you have her number?

You can’t sue us, we’re a country!

This is the scene I like to imagine whenever I think about the case of USA v Nolan which  has been running since November 2006 and is far from over, despite a ruling last week from the Supreme Court.

The case did indeed involve the closure of an American ‘Watercraft Repair Centre’ in Hythe in Hampshire with the loss of 200 civilian jobs. There was, however, no consultation about the closure of the base. Mrs Nolan, as an employee representative, has taken on the World’s greatest superpower in claiming that she should have been consulted under s.188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

Mrs Nolan is my hero.

For me, the most delicious detail of the case is that everyone agrees that she should have fallen at the first hurdle. It is common ground that the USA could have claimed what is called ‘state immunity’. In other words, the USA could have said ‘you can’t sue us, we’re a country’ and the claim would have been dismissed.

However, America chose not to invoke state immunity, preferring to argue that the duty to consult did not apply to the strategic decision to close the base. At the time there was good reason to think that the law was indeed limited in this way and that the employer did not have consult about a closure decision per se, but rather about the redundancies that arose as a result. However the EAT then held in UK Coal Mining Ltd v National Union of Mineworkers (Northumberland Division) that the duty was to consult about ways of avoiding the redundancy and if a closure decision made redundancies inevitable, then the employer had to consult about that decision. By that time the opportunity to claim state immunity had passed and America had a real fight on its hands.

Mrs Nolan won her case in 2008 and that decision was upheld by the EAT in 2009. In 2010 the Court of Appeal referred questions to the European Court of Justice about just when the duty to consult arose and in October 2012 (!) the Court decided that it was nothing to do with them because the Directive didn’t apply to public administrative bodies. That led to an argument before the Court of Appeal to the effect that the rules on redundancy consultation were not intended to go wider than the Directive and that they were therefore not applicable in this case. The Court of Appeal rejected that argument just last year, and their decision was upheld by the Supreme Court last week. The case has now been sent back to the Court of Appeal to determine the outstanding issue of just when in the employer’s decision making process the duty to consult arises. Mrs Nolan is no longer taking an active part in the proceedings, but she doesn’t need to. It now has a life of its own.

Somewhere buried in this case is an interesting and difficult point about exactly when the duty to consult arises. My own view is that the real question should be the quality of the consultation that takes place before the dismissal rather than the point at which the duty to consult arises – but that is a whole other article. In the meantime, pity the poor American official who decided not to claim state immunity on the assumption that the law didn’t apply to the closure anyway. ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ he or she must have thought. Ten years on, and no end in sight, I think we can answer that question at least.

Posted in case law, EU law, Redundancy Consultation, Wages | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments