Religious groups in the UK could soon find their members subject to minimum wage and anti-discrimination laws, a union has claimed.
Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, said the Church of England has conceded that its ministers are employed by the Church rather than God in the case of former policeman Reverend Mark Sharpe.
During his three-year tenure, Sharpe said he had been subjected to verbal abuse and threats by locals, and has been forced to work in a vicarage infested by vermin, with dangerous heating and electrical systems.
A recent landmark employment tribunal in Birmingham between Sharpe and his employer, the Worcester Diocese, saw the church agree that Sharpe had ‘the status of a worker for the purposes of this claim’. The case hinges on a historical declaration that priests are ‘office holders’ occupying ‘a living’, employed by God, and are not subject to employment legislation.
The case is now set for judicial mediation in the next few months, and if upheld after any appeal, will mean that members of religious groups across the UK could be subject to legislation covering health & safety, the National Minimum Wage, paid holidays, whistleblowing, anti-discrimination, flexible working policies, and the Working Time Directive.
Rachael Maskell, Unite’s national officer, community and non-profit sector said: “We are poised for the biggest raft of employment benefits for ministers in the Church of England since it came into being under Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 1530s. It will also have implications for other faith groups.”
“We want to work with the Church of England to improve working conditions for Unite’s members, but first of all, we need an independent review by the conciliatory service, Acas as how best this can occur.”
But a CoE spokesman said that under employment law, a ‘worker’ does not mean the same thing as ‘employee’, and any ruling will not have the widespread effect the union claims. He said most ministers within the Church wanted to keep its title of ‘office-holder’ rather than ‘employee’.
“We have more than 10,000 paid clergy, and the overwhelming majority say they want to remain office-holders,” the spokesman said. “We’ve been working with Unite for six years to find a way to give 21st century conditions of service to our clergy, while letting them remain office-holders, and there is currently a measure making its way through the Houses of Parliament that we believe will provide these conditions.”
Unite has over 2,500 members in the ‘clergy’ category, although it includes members from other religious affiliations.