United Kingdom: Latest working life developments – Q4 2016

The latest developments on Brexit, the government’s review of the ‘future world of work’, the tribunal victory for Uber drivers and the strikes in December are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in the UK in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Supreme Court hearing on the triggering of Article 50

The UK’s Supreme Court sat for four days in early December, to hear an appeal from the government over the triggering of the Article 50 mechanism for Brexit. The original case, heard in early November, was brought at the High Court by the People’s Challenge Group. The plaintiffs argued that the government could not invoke Article 50 without first seeking approval from Parliament. The government, however, maintains that it can trigger Article 50 without Parliamentary authorisation under powers inherited through what was previously the royal prerogative. The High Court had unanimously ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, leading the government to appeal. The Supreme Court’s ruling is expected in January.

Parliamentary debate on employment rights and Brexit

A parliamentary debate on the EU and employment law was held on 7 November, the first in a series of debates in the House of Commons on elements of Brexit after the government acceded to MPs’ demands for greater scrutiny over the negotiations. In October, the Prime Minister Theresa May had reaffirmed her commitment to retain EU employment protections, post-Brexit. However, the opposition Labour Party is seeking more concrete guarantees in light of government responses to parliamentary questions submitted by the Shadow Brexit minister, Keir Starmer. In them, the government appears to be moving from its position, promising to replicate employment protections only where practical. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has repeatedly called for the protection of employment rights following Brexit. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has made no explicit statement on the matter, its principal goal being the retention of tariff-free access to the Single Market.

Review into the future world of work and rights of workers

On 26 October, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee launched an inquiry into the future world of work, focusing on the rapidly changing nature of work, the status and rights of agency workers, the self-employed, and those working in the ‘gig economy’. The Prime Minister had ordered the review of employment practices on 1 October, stating that she wished to ensure the protection of workers’ rights under changing business models and a growing trend towards flexible or self-employment. The review will look at the suitability of existing employment law in light of the country’s growing number of ‘non-standard forms of employment’, such as self-employment, temporary work and zero-hours contracts. It will also examine issues such as low pay and the poor working conditions of those in non-standard employment.

The review follows the Committee’s recent inquiries into the digital economy, the employment status of workers in the ‘sharing economy’ and working practices at Sports Direct. Recent news stories about working practices at Asos, and couriers at Hermes and those working in the ‘on-demand’ economy for businesses such as Uber and Deliveroo, also prompted the investigation. The Committee requested written submissions by Monday 19 December, with evidence sessions to begin in January 2017.

Union victory against Uber

The general workers’ union, the GMB, secured a landmark victory against Uber in October in a tribunal case over the employment status of Uber drivers . The drivers were recruited by Uber, required by Uber to accept trips, instructed on how to perform their work and subjected to a performance management ratings system. Despite this, Uber asserted that it was a technology company, rather than a taxi-firm employer, referring to the drivers as ‘self-employed business people’. However, the tribunal ruled that the Uber drivers are indeed workers, as opposed to being self-employed. Having successfully established their ‘worker’ status, the drivers now have the right to paid annual leave, a maximum 48-hour working week, the National Minimum Wage and whistle-blowing protection.

Strike ‘wave’ in December

A number of industrial disputes over pay and safety standards took place in the week before and over Christmas, leading to media descriptions of a ‘strike wave’. More than 3,000 Post Office workers took action in a dispute over proposed branch closures and pay, while members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) took nine days of action at Southern Rail in their dispute with the train operator over the role of guards. Train drivers’ union ASLEF joined the dispute and took three days of action. Cabin crew at British Airways were also due to strike on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, but this was averted after a deal was reached through conciliation service ACAS.

The Prime Minister condemned the strikes and a number of Conservative MPs called for tougher laws on industrial action, describing the strikes as ‘politically motivated’.


There is continued uncertainty as to whether the UK will retain the employment rights, conferred by EU legislation, following Brexit. Despite the Prime Minister’s earlier commitment, there is now seemingly a shift in that position. The government’s Review of Employment Practices is welcome, but of course, it is unclear what the outcomes of this will be and whether new legislative protections will follow. The calls by some MPs for a ‘toughening’ of legislation on industrial action following the disputes in December have been condemned by the TUC and other unions, which have highlighted the fact that the UK already has the most restrictive legislation within Europe, tightened further by the recent Trade Union Act.

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