24/05/2010

What’s new for employers in 2010?

This year sees a number of significant changes to employment law with the imminent introduction of the Equality Act and amendments to employees’ rights to leave. Furthermore, recent high profile cases relating to industrial action have relevance to employers of all sizes throughout the region.

Looking first at the Equality Act, it aims to harmonise, simplify and modernise the existing discrimination framework by grouping together all of the different heads discrimination – including the equal pay framework – into one piece of legislation.

Importantly, the Act introduces the concept of dual discrimination which enables employees to bring a claim against their employer based on a combination of no more than two protected characteristics. For example, this could lead to a combined claim for sex and race discrimination.

Another key change is that it will be unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the grounds of perceived characteristics even if they are not actual characteristics. For example, perceiving someone as homosexual when they are not and discriminating against them would contravene the Act. Pre-employment health questionnaires are also now prohibited in an attempt to stop employers discriminating on grounds of health or disability.

With regard to an employee’s right to leave, there are now 21 different rights to time off work. However, employers will be pleased to know that not everyone is entitled to these rights and some are mutually exclusive.

There is a specific new right to request time to off to train or study. This currently only applies to businesses with 250 plus employees but it will be extended to all businesses on April 3, 2011. There are also changes to paternity leave which will apply to a father whose children are born, or placed in the case of adoption, on or after April 2, 2011. Up to 26 weeks additional paternity leave will be available provided the mother returns to work early before she has exhausted her right to maternity leave.

Employers also need to be mindful of recent high profile cases involving the threat of strike and industrial action, in particular those involving British Airways and the UNITE union representing the company’s cabin crew.

Although it may seem somewhat removed from Yorkshire businesses at the moment there are valuable lessons to be learnt from this case because it is likely that industrial action may affect the region over the coming months and years given the likelihood of public sectors cutbacks and the knock on effect in the private sector.

There tends to be a feeling that strikes, industrial action and even union recognition is something which is confined to larger employers. This is simply not the case. Undoubtedly the unions will become increasingly active if employers seek to impose what they perceive as cuts. We have seen union activity in employers of less than 1,000 staff higher than at any time in recent years and expect this trend to continue to upwards.

So, 2010 is bringing forth many changes for employers to be aware of both from the perspective of new legislation and fast moving case law that points to potential issues further down the line. It is imperative that employers ensure they are best placed to deal with these changes by managing their risk to ensure they can focus on developing their business during these testing economic times.

If you wish to discuss this article, or any other employment law issues, please contact Philip Paget on 0113 227 0212 or e-mail: philip.paget@gordonsllp.com