Employment rights

What are employment rights?

By law, all employees have certain rights – drawn up by various governments over the years – to ensure ‘fair’ relations between employees and employers.

Statutory rights, those rights endowed by law, form the minimum standard for an employee’s treatment in the workplace.

Employment rights

The term employment rights covers a number of different areas.

Areas of employment rights

Some of the most prominent employment rights that exist in the UK, include the following:

National Living Wage
All employees in the United Kingdom aged over 23 are entitled to the National Living Wage, which in 2022 was set at £9.50. Those under 23 are entitled to the National Minimum Wage which operates under the same principle but with slightly lower rates for younger workers and those on apprenticeship schemes.

By law, full time workers are entitled to 28 annual leave during the year including bank holidays. This leave must be paid at the worker’s normal rate of remuneration.

For part time workers, the minimum holiday requirement is calculated to reflect their equivalent proportion of full time working.

The right to statutory maternity leave and statutory maternity pay is set out in Part 8 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and Part 2 of the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999. Fathers are also now entitled to two weeks paid paternity leave.

Equal pay and equal treatment
The Equality Act of 2010 repealed and replaced earlier equality legislation. It prohibits discrimination – including in the workplace – in relation to the ‘protected characteristics’: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

The Right to Strike
In Britain, employees do not enjoy a right to strike per se. Rather, unions are given statutory immunity from the common law consequences of industrial action, provided certain criteria are met. Employees who then participate in a ‘legal’ strike are immune from dismissal despite, as otherwise they would typically be in breach of their contract when doing so.

A series of Acts of Parliament from 1906-2016 have granted unions, and union officials, immunity from liability for striking. This is the case as long as unions conduct a secret postal ballot, in which the majority of members (typically with a turnout of 50%) agree to strike action.

Rights around dismissal
The are a number laws and regulations covering the means by which an employee can and cannot be dismissed. For example, under the Employment Relations Act 1999, an employee dismissed for participating in statutorily immune industrial action is regarded as unfairly dismissed.

If an employee is dismissed following a disciplinary process, and the employee believe they have been unfairly dismissed, an employment tribunal will look at whether the employer followed the correct disciplinary procedures.

Employees also have rights in relation to minimum redundancy payments.

Agency work
An agency worker has a contract with an employment agency rather than the hiring firm/organisation.

Once an agency worker has been on assignment in the same role for the same hirer for a period of 12 continuous calendar weeks, they become entitled to the same basic terms of employment as if he or she had been directly recruited by the hirer.

Employment rights around the world

Some examples of how employment rights work around the world include:

In France, the standard working week is 35 hours, and under the 2000 Aubry Law, those working above that level are entitled to overtime, or extra time off.

So called gardening leave (where an employee remains under an employment contract prior to termination, but may be released from working ), is not permitted. In France this violates the essential principle that it is the employer’s responsibility to provide work to the employee.

Companies in France of a certain size are required to operate with a ‘Works Council’. Under these arrangements, non-voting employee representatives are entitled to attend meetings of the Board of Directors. They must also be consulted in relation to a number of business changes like a company acquisition or the discontinuation of a product line or division.

In Angola, maximum daily and weekly working hours are 8 hours per day and 44 hours per week. The minimum wage is established by Presidential Decree.

In Nigeria, normal hours of work are fixed either by mutual agreement, by collective bargaining within the organisation or by an industrial wages board. Overtime must be paid for, but the rate to be paid is not specified by law.

In China, the maximum number of working hours is 40 hours per week and 8 hours per day, except in the case of a flexible working hour system or a comprehensive working hour system, which requires approval from the local labor authority.  The minimum wage is stipulated by local regulations.

In Japan, employers cannot require employees to work for more than 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week

In the United Sates of America, employers are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which guarantees minimum wage and overtime pay for non-exempt employees. There is no federal limit on the number of hours per day or per week that an employee over the age of 16 can work. All non-exempt employees must be paid at least the federal minimum wage, which in 2020 was $12 per hour for companies with under 25 staff, and $13 per hour for those with over 25 staff.

In Argentina, the general maximum number of hours is 8 hours per day or 48 hours per week for all employed workers in public or private enterprises. The national minimum wage is updated regularly by the National Council of Employment dependent of the Ministry of Work, Employment and Social Security (Ministry)

In Columbia, employees must have at least 1 paid day off every 6 days (usually Sundays). The ordinary working day is from 6:00 am to 9:00 pm.

The debate around employment rights

The Benefits of Employment Rights
Employment regulation is designed to counter unfair work practices and ensure income and job security for the UK’s workforce.

According to qualitative analysis by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), offering fair pay and protecting employment rights has a positive impact on trust in business. It also suggests that fairness in employee treatment leads to increased productivity.

A National minimum wage can lead to a ‘fairer’ distribution of income between the higher paid and the low paid. Poverty may be reduced in turn.

A limit to the capabilities of employers to ‘hire and fire’ means employees can hold down jobs for longer. This can lead to them gaining greater skills in a particular industry and becoming more productive in the long run.

Greater job security for employees means that they consume in the economy with more confidence. The same logic applies for investment and house-buying, the latter of which has significant social benefits.

While 28% of the CBI’s (Confederation of British Business) membership said employment law was an administrative burden, almost two-thirds of the CBI’s membership agreed that ‘implementing employment law makes a positive contribution to employee relationships’.

Concerns surrounding Employment Rights
Critics of expanding employment rights say that while ‘fairness’ is important, so is a flexible economy, which is said in turn to support economic growth.

Flexibility in the labour market has long been championed as part of the UK’s competitive advantage over other nations. It is said to act as a magnet for foreign investment and, in turn, growth, jobs and productivity improvements.

Those supporting a flexible labour market suggest it can be positive for both employees and employers, particularly smaller businesses. Limiting the bureaucracy involved in ‘hiring and firing’ means that new employees can get jobs quicker and firms can employee more efficiently. They argue that high levels of bureaucracy and costs associated with employment can lead to firms moving their business operations overseas.

Those wary of the encroachment of employment rights warn that significant job security can act as a disincentive to working hard. It is also suggested that strong employment rights can create a time lag between central bank policy and the real economy. This is because firms are forced to take longer to adapt to new interest rate levels or economic conditions due to regulation.

History of Employment rights in the UK

19th century
With the industrial revolution well underway, from the middle of the 19th century Acts of Parliament were passed to better protect workers rights.
•    The Factory Act 1833 prohibited the employment of children under 9.
•    The Factory Act of 1874 raised the minimum age of employment for children to ten years in textile factories.
•    The Employer and Workman Act of 1875 placed employees and employees on equal footing and allowed all breaches of contract to be covered by civil law.
•    The Factory and Workshop Act of 1895 further regulated the conditions, safety, health and wages of people working in factories.

1900 – 1945
The Trade Disputes Act 1906 added the famous words to UK employment law: ‘An act done in pursuance of an agreement or combination by two or more persons shall, if done in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute, not be actionable unless the act, if done without any such agreement or combination, would be actionable’. These are still found in section 219 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

The 1970s
Equality in the work place has not always been enforced by law. It wasn’t until 1975 with the Sex Discrimination Act that equality began to be introduced into law. This was closely followed in 1976 by the Race Relations Act which was established to prevent race discrimination.

1979 – 1997
The 1980 Employment Act redefined ‘lawful picketing’. An 80% majority was required to legalise a ‘closed shop’, it repealed the statutory recognition procedure and it restricted unfair dismissal and maternity rights.

The 1982 Employment Act placed further restrictions on industrial action. The 80% rule was extended to all closed shops every 5 years, it removed union only labour clauses in commercial contracts and it meant employers could obtain injunctions against unions and sue unions for damages.

The 1986 Public Order Act introduced new criminal offences in relation to picketing.

1997 – 2010
The 1998 National Minimum Wage Act introduced a national minimum wage for those over 18, subject to exceptions for training, volunteer work, residents in charities and religious communities.

The 1998 Working Time Regulations Act implemented a European Commission Directive with respect to maximum working hours.

The 1998 Human Rights Act gave affect to the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law. This included granting better protection from discrimination by public authority.

The 1999 Employee Relations Act amended the Trade Union Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Dismissal for participation in official industrial action was deemed unfair within a protected period of 8 weeks.

The Equality Act of 2010 brought together more than 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single act – a new streamlined legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity.

2010 – present day
The 2016 Trade Union Act made it more difficult for workers to engage in industrial action.

In all industrial action ballots, at least 50% of those entitled to vote must now do so, with a majority then in favour of industrial action. If the majority of those entitled to vote are ‘normally engaged’ in the provision of ‘important public services’ at least 40% of those “entitled” to vote must vote in favour of action.

Furthermore, unions now must give 14 days’ notice of any industrial action, unless the employer agrees that 7 days’ notice is enough (previously 7 days’ notice was enough).

Since 2013 claimants have had to pay fees to issue an employment tribunal claim and have it heard, unless they qualify for a reduction or waiver on the grounds of having limited wealth and low income.


The UK is one of the safest places to work in the EU. In 2014, the standardised rate of fatal injuries to employees in the UK was 0.55 per 100,000 employees, the lowest of those published by Eurostat.

The number of tribunal cases has dropped since 2010. In 2019/20 the number of cases heard was 103,973, in 2009/10 it was over 236,000.

In 2018, according to the Office of National Statistics, there were 273,000 working days lost due to labour disputes, the sixth-lowest annual total since records began in 1891.


‘Trade unions stand up for the rights of workers from all countries, regardless of their immigration status or race. Trade unions build solidarity between workers which stops employers dividing workers and driving down conditions’. – Trade Union Congress

‘The UK’s flexible labour market also acts as a catalyst for innovation. Working flexibly is a positive choice for most people and this should be celebrated’ – Confederation of British Industry