Be aware of rights for fairer deal from your employer

Unfair employment practices are devastating the lives of thousands of people in Scotland. Picture: Malcolm Irving
Unfair employment practices are devastating the lives of thousands of people in Scotland. Picture: Malcolm Irving
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Advice and support available to help workers, says Moira Tasker

Work dominates our lives – whether you are an employer or an employee; whether you work for yourself, a small business or a large multi-national corporation. Many people spend more time at work – or thinking or talking about work – than they do enjoying time with their family or friends.

We do know that being in work means you are likely to be healthier and happier – but did you know that having a low-quality job where your basic employment rights are ignored means you will have poorer general health and a poorer quality of life than other people – even those who are unemployed?

That fact – and the consequences for our communities – should be of deep concern to everyone.

Unfair employment practices are devastating the lives of thousands of people in Scotland. If left unresolved, employment problems and incorrect practices can be the start of a downward spiral into long-term unemployment, ill health, debt, relationship breakdown and homelessness. Disreputable employment practices are a way of creating instant poverty in our communities.

Mark Twain wrote: “The law of work does seem utterly unfair – but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash also.”

At Citizens Advice Edinburgh, we believe that in these progressive times employment law can be fair, it can be upheld and where it isn’t working, it can be changed.

We see many people who are struggling with unfair employment practices, from being paid less than the minimum wage or not being paid at all to being sacked by text message for refusing one shift after years of faithful service and a recent enforced change to a zero hours contract.

Last year alone, our volunteers helped resolve a staggering 5,217 employment inquiries. Many people came to us in distress believing the problems they were having at work were unfair.

The most common problems our charity sees – and our volunteers and specialists have to deal with – centre around pay, sickness, holidays and parental rights, as well as problems with bullying, unfair dismissal and discrimination of all kinds.

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination, in particular, is still on the rise – and with the new fees surrounding employment tribunals, many women are unable to prioritise the costs of challenging discriminatory treatment when they are about to, or have recently given birth.

Unfair and wrongful dismissals are becoming more common as well. This appears to be acute among small businesses which may be struggling to access up-to-date, free or low-cost information about employment law, and are struggling themselves to make ends meet.

Another growing area of concern is young workers who are often unaware of their rights and the duty of care owed to them by their employer. Very few young people who seek our help and advice know that the minimum wage changes each October. They rely on their employer to pay them the correct wage and treat them fairly. Fewer still know they have specific working time limits on their day or that they are entitled to paid holidays.

Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country are reminding people of their basic rights at work through the Fair Enough? Campaign. If you pop into a Citizens Advice Bureau you can pick up a card which highlights basic rights such as the minimum wage, holiday entitlements and rules on sickness leave.

Here in Edinburgh, we have a booklet on your employment rights and also offer face-to-face employment advice at our five bureaux thanks to support from the City of Edinburgh Council.

For people unable to visit us during office hours, we also run evening employment clinics, funded by the Voluntary Action Fund and Granite Search and Selection. We offer free, independent and impartial advice for both employees and employers.

Anyone can be affected by a problem at work and we can help.

We believe that employment legislation can and should be fair and we can help you challenge unfairness. Whether it will then bring you Mark Twain’s prediction of joy and wealth (or wealth and then joy) we’re not so sure – but our charity and dedicated, expert volunteers will give you the advice and support you need to stand up for your rights as an employee or the information you need to be a fairer, better employer.

Moira Tasker is chief executive of Citizens Advice Edinburgh