Overseas worker wins the right to bring unfair dismissal claim in UK

Employees will be able to claim unfair dismissal under UK law even if they do all their work abroad, following a groundbreaking decision in the House of Lords.

Stephen Lawson, a former security officer for support services firm Serco, claimed he was forced to work a 64-hour week on the remote Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. He claimed the long hours meant “his health and safety were put in peril” and resigned, claiming constructive dismissal.

The Court of Appeal had said Lawson had no legal protection because all his duties were carried out overseas.

But the House of Lords has now decided that because both employer and employee had close connections with the UK, this was sufficient for Lawson to have the right to claim unfair dismissal. The fact that all the services were performed abroad did not bar him from employment rights.
In his judgment, Lord Hoffman said that when considering each individual case, employees working abroad could be covered by UK law if they were posted abroad for the purposes of the UK business or if they worked in a UK political or social enclave abroad.

Juliet Carp, solicitor with law firm Speechly Bircham, said the decision could have a huge impact on employers.

“This is the biggest decision we have had for a long time – the risks for employers sending staff overseas are greater than ever before,” she said.
In an unusual move, Serco supported Lawson in his attempts to get the law clarified. Graham Cappa, head of media relations at Serco, said the company was happy with the judgment.

“It benefits our employees as well as us as an employer. We were startled by the Court of Appeal’s judgment as it could have led to employees refusing to take overseas postings,” he said.

However, Cappa confirmed that the company would still fight the case on whether Lawson was actually unfairly dismissed.

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