Employment law 1988 – 2008

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It is incredible to think an employment law textbook of 20 or so years ago consisted of about five pages setting out the relationship between ‘master and servant’. Since then, workers have gained many new rights and employers face a legal minefield. Tracy Lacey-Smith, head of employment at SA Law, looks back at the past two decades.

1988 – 1993

Although there was legislation in place 20 years ago protecting employees from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race and equal pay, employers were much less aware of the legislation than they are today.

In 1992, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act was implemented. The original directive was introduced in 1975 when most workers were represented by an independent trade union. However, the decline in union membership meant that less than half the workforce was actually represented by a trade union by the time the Act came into force 17 years later. Most workers who were supposed to benefit from the Act were not covered.

1993 – 1998

There was a raft of legislation introduced in the mid 1990s, including the Disability Discrimination Act, and the issue of protecting employee’s rights came to the forefront. In 1996, the Employment Rights Act 1996 came into force, consolidating most of the individual rights previously set out in the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, the Wages Act 1986 and the Sunday Trading Act 1994. The Industrial Tribunal Act 1996 was introduced at the same time, collating the existing regulation relating to industrial tribunals.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was also implemented to provide protection against stalkers but in recent years it has also been used in an employment context.

1998 – 2003

This period saw a wealth of legislation, covering data protection, human rights and whistleblowing. Laws protecting part-time and fixed-term workers, introducing the right to request flexible working, expanding maternity leave and initiating adoption leave came into force.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 was implemented following a series of disasters and a banking scandal that could have been prevented had employees felt confident in blowing the whistle.

Labour’s flagship National Minimum Wage Act 1998 took effect on 1 April 1999. Undoubtedly this has given a huge amount of protection for the most vulnerable employees working in low paid jobs.

2003 – 2008

The Statutory Dispute Resolution Procedures, implemented in 2004, have failed to reduce the number of employment tribunal claims which rose by 13% in 2006-07.

October 2006 saw the introduction of the Age Discrimination Regulations protecting employees against less favourable treatment on the grounds of their age or perceived age. Controversially for some, the automatic retirement age of 65 remained, although HeyDay is still challenging it. The European Court of Justice is due to give its decision later this year.

After the introduction of smoking bans in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, England followed suit in July 2007. To date, employers seem to have responded well to this law.

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