Firing on all cylinders

Thousands of reservists were called up for the war in Iraq, which may be the first of many major mobilisations. But although employers are legally obliged to allow staff to be in the TA, they also benefit from a better motivated and more committed workforce.

As 5,800 reservist troops were mobilised for the Iraq war, many employers were caught out – with just a few weeks notice, their employees were off to serve in the Gulf. Some employers, unaware that they even had reservists on their payroll, saw members of staff leave to serve for more than six months, leaving holes that were difficult to fill.

Now it is predicted that last year’s mobilisation may just be the first in a number of major mobilisations as the Armed Forces restructure the way they operate and staff themselves.

At the end of the Cold War, a huge military presence became less important. And, because they are part-time, reservists were seen as a highly cost-effective resource. Many also have civilian skills that the forces can use – such as electricians, who are being used in the rebuilding of Iraq.

The Volunteer Reserve Forces are made up of 41,000 people who train and serve with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army or Royal Air Force, as well as having civilian jobs. From these volunteers and more than 180,000 ex-regular reservists, there are currently more than 10,000 who have been ‘called up’ for operational duties around the world, including serving in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Iraq.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) realises that if it wants to keep using reservists, it must keep employers onside. Many employers don’t realise that employing a reservist brings with it a raft of legal obligations on their part (see box, opposite). To help keep employers in the picture, the MoD launched Sabre – Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers – a campaign designed to inform employers about the benefits of employing reservists.

And the Sabre campaign is the reason I found myself standing in a freezing field in Slovakia with tracer bullets flying over my head.

The MoD has brought journalists and employers on Exercise Slovak Express – an exercise designed to let us see reserve forces in training, and demonstrate the “skills and attitudes that membership of the reserve forces can bring to its members”.

The MoD argues that while employers may see an employee called up, and may have to restructure rosters to allow for a fairly demanding training programme (see box, right), they get fitter, more disciplined staff, who receive valuable training (£9,000 worth each a year) that will help them in their civilian lives.

In Slovakia, members of the TA from the North West are undergoing a two-week training programme. This includes a number of exercises – night-firing, storming ‘enemy’ positions, and sleeping in the field.

The reservists certainly believe the training and discipline of the TA helps them in their day jobs. Corporal Michael Johnson, who works in the maintenance department of the Knowsley Housing Trust, has been in the TA for 11 years, and says he has developed leadership skills.

“It changes you,” he says. “If you are told to do it, you do it.” John Woodward, a fitter at James Wall Transport, agrees. “It has given me self-confidence. Normally, I would sit back, but now I get into it.”

Other soldiers have similar views. They say their time-keeping has improved, as well as their motivation, discipline, and ability to work with others.

The employers on the trip are all singing the Army’s praises, and they believe that having staff in the TA would benefit their business.

It’s difficult to tell if this is the case. The soldiers would say the TA is of benefit. They are all enjoying the camp – firing guns and storming embankments must be far more interesting than being a machine operator in Liverpool. And the other employers, simply by coming along on the trip, are open and accepting of the Army’s argument.

However, whether the MoD’s argument holds water is largely irrelevant. Employers have a legal obligation to let staff belong to the reservists – the best most can do is to be aware of employees who are, and plan for any eventuality.

What HR needs to know about reservists

  • Employers do not, by law, have to let their reservists have time off for training. However, Sabre says it would like to see employers acknowledge the training that reservists are given, and how this can be included into the company’s staff development programme.
  • Reserves can be called up under the powers of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 if national danger is imminent, a great emergency has arisen, or in the event of an actual or apprehended attack on the UK.
  • In the event of a major crisis, the secretary of state for defence can call for the compulsory mobilisation of voluntary reserves. To date, these powers have only been used very occasionally, and employers and reservists both have a legal right to apply for exemption or deferral, and to appeal against the decision if the request is refused.
  • If a reservist is called up, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will pay the employer’s contribution to the reservist’s company pension and take the reservist’s contribution, if necessary, from the military wage.
  • Employers do not have to pay a reservist if they undertake a period of voluntary mobilisation, and, if they incur extra costs, employers can apply for financial assistance to cover these.  The Strategic Defence Review of 1998 put a number of measures in place to ensure that neither employers or reservists lose out financially in the event of mobilisation.
  • Employers can appeal against reservists they employ being mobilised, but, as the MoD admits, this will only be allowed if it is ‘going to be exceptionally difficult or inconvenient’.
  • Both employer and staff can apply for exemption or deferral.
  • If redundancies are necessary while reservists are away, the fact they are away should have no bearing on the decision.
  • Employers are not legally obliged to pay reservists holiday time accrued while mobilised, but many employers choose to.
  • Reservists are, on average, mobilised for six months at a time. However, some may serve up to a year over a three-year period.

The reservists’ view

  • 92 per cent of reservists tell their employer they are a reservist
  • 75 per cent say their employer is ‘generally supportive’
  • 36 per cent of reservists work in the public sector, 71.5 per cent for employers with more than 50 staff
  • 21.5 per cent work in wholesale and retail
  • 11.1 per cent work in management and consultancy
  • 9.9 per cent work in public administration and defence
  • 8.3 per cent work in health and social work
  • 7.9 per cent work in transport, postal services and storage
  • 5.6 per cent work in manufacturing, machinery and equipment

Reservists’ commitments

  • Reservists are required to train one night a week and about 30 full days each year. The days are made up of a number of weekends plus an annual training period of 15 days continuous duty. Some employers pay staff, others make them use annual leave.
  • Reservists can be compulsorily mobilised under the Reserve Forces Act 1996 for military operations. They may also be asked to volunteer for operations where there is no compulsory mobilisation, but this requires their employer’s agreement.
  • If an employee is mobilised, an employer is entitled to financial compensation – made up of three elements:

    • Initial replacement costs
    • Ongoing administration costs
    • Costs for essential retraining on de-mobilisation.

Employers may also be entitled to an additional award if the standard award doesn’t cover the actual costs incurred.

  • If an employee is voluntarily mobilised, they must tell the employer, as the employer’s consent is required. Compulsory mobilisation will also be made aware to the employee, but will be accompanied with a letter for the employer, as well as the reservist’s mobilisation papers. This letter will set out the date and possible duration of mobilisation, and the employer’s statutory rights and obligations.
  • The Reserve Forces Act gives no statutory requirement for a warning period prior to mobilisation, but in most cases there will be at least two weeks warning.
  • Reservists will normally be mobilised for three to 12 months.
  • The employer of a reservist who is to be mobilised can appeal if the loss of the worker will cause serious harm to the business. They can also apply for financial assistance.

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