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Discrimination because of trade union membership or activities

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (‘TULRA’) forbids employers refusing to employ someone or treating them unfairly because of trade union membership or participation in trade union activities, or conversely because they refuse to join a trade union or eschew trade union activities.

Refusal of employment

A court or tribunal will deem that you have been refused employment if a prospective employer or an agent acting on their behalf:

  • refuses or deliberately omits to deal with your application or enquiry;
  • causes you to withdraw or stop pursuing your application or enquiry (for example by threatening you);
  • refuses or deliberately omits to offer you employment of the kind you are seeking;
  • makes you an offer of employment of the kind you are seeking but on terms (for example, the rate of pay) which no reasonable employer who wished to fill the vacancy would offer, and which is not accepted;
  • makes you an offer of employment of the kind you are seeking but withdraws it or causes you not to accept it (for example by making discouraging remarks).

Unfair treatment and protected activities

The TULRA impact all workers (not just employees) in all areas of employment, such as:

  • pay rates;
  • training;
  • access to occupational/company pension schemes;
  • holiday entitlement;
  • maternity/paternity leave;
  • sick pay;
  • employment opportunities; and
  • protection against redundancy or dismissal.

Moreover, the TULRA extend protection to a wide range of trade union activities, including:

  • attendance at workplace meetings to discuss and vote on negotiations with your employer, such as a pay increases or changes to your employment terms and conditions;
  • going to a meeting with a full-time trade union official away from your workplace to discuss issues at your workplace;
  • voting in a trade union ballot, for example to elect a shop steward;
  • consulting a trade union learning representative; and
  • making use of trade union services, e.g., legal advice.

Appropriate time

In order to benefit from the TULRA, however, be aware that you do not have carte-blanche to engage in trade union activities whenever you feel like it -- protection only extends to activities that occur at an ‘appropriate time’.

‘Appropriate time’ includes free time spent outside working hours, during rest breaks, and sometimes during working hours provided your employer agrees (NB. your employer must be reasonable in handling requests for time off -- see below).

Reasonable time off

You are entitled to take ‘reasonable time off’ during your normal working hours to engage in trade union activities.

Courts and tribunals take the following factors into account in deciding what is reasonable:

  • the nature of the employer’s business
  • the need to do your work
  • needs of your line manager and your co-workers
  • importance of health and safety at work
  • amount of time off you have already taken for trade union duties and activities

If you need to take time off for trade union duties or activities, you should provide your employer with as much notice as possible, giving details of your reason for taking time off and how much time off is required.

You should also check your employment contract and/or employee handbook as many employers have formal agreements with staff about time off for trade union activities.

Paid time off for trade union officials

Recognised trade union officials are entitled to paid time off to perform a number of duties, including:

  • negotiating terms and conditions of employment;
  • assisting trade union members with disciplinary or grievance issues;
  • accompanying trade union members to meetings to discuss flexible working requests and requests not to retire;
  • negotiating issues about trade union membership;
  • discussing issues affecting trade union members (e.g., redundancies or the sale of the business).

In addition, trade union officials are entitled to be paid for time spent on training that is relevant to carrying out the above duties.

Pursuing a claim for discrimination

If you believe that you have suffered discrimination for a trade union related reason, you can take the matter up with your union and may be able to complain about it by using your employer’s internal grievance procedure.

If, having done this, you are still unhappy and believe your employer acted unlawfully you may want to seek legal help and file a complaint with an Employment Tribunal. This should be done within three months of the act complained of.

An employment tribunal may award compensation and/or order your employer to stop the discriminatory treatment. Where you are unlawfully refused employment, a tribunal can also ‘recommend’ you be hired, and if the employer fails to comply with this recommendation, the tribunal may decide to increase compensation up to a maximum (as of February 1, 2013) of £74,200.

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