United Kingdom: Working life country profile

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Health and well-being at work,
  • Löhne und Gehälter,
  • Skills and training,
  • Work organisation,
  • Arbeitszeit,
  • Labour market participation,
  • Collective bargaining,
  • Social partners,
  • Social partners,
  • Inequality,
  • Working conditions,
  • Beschäftigung und Arbeitsmärkte,
  • Arbeitsbeziehungen,
  • Labour and social regulation,
  • Lebensbedingungen und Lebensqualität,
  • Social policies,
  • Beschäftigung und Arbeitsmärkte,
  • Published on: 25 November 2015

United Kingdom

This profile describes they key characteristics of working life in the United Kingdom. It aims to complement other Eurofound research by providing the relevant background information on structures, institutions and relevant regulations regarding working life. This includes indicators, data and regulatory systems on the following aspects: actors and institutions, collective and individual employment relations, health and well-being, pay, working time, skills and training, and equality and discrimination at work. The profiles are updated annually.

Key figures

Comparative figures on working life in the United Kingdom                 




% (point) change

United Kingdom


United Kingdom


United Kingdom









Unemployment rate – total







Unemployment rate  women







Unemployment rate – men







Unemployment rate  youth







Employment rate – total







Employment rate  women







Employment rate  men







Employment rate  youth







Source: Eurostat - Unemployment rate by sex and age - annual average,  % [une_rt_a]; Purchasing power parities (PPPs), price level indices and real expenditures for ESA 2010 aggregates [prc_ppp_ind]).


Economic and labour market context

Between 2010 and 2015, UK GDP increased 15%, above the EU average of 13% for the same period. Unemployment rates decreased in all categories, especially for young people, falling 5.3 percentage points and reaching 14.6% in 2015, well below the EU average of 20.3% for that year. Employment rates over the five years remained above the EU averages. The biggest increase was in the employment rate of women, which rose 2.4 percentage points, the same as the EU average rise; it stood at 71.7% in 2015, when the EU average was 66.8%.

More information on:

Legal context

There are various UK acts covering UK employment and trade union law.

The main legislation covering British labour law is the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which sets out definitions related to trade unions and how they may operate. Statutory trade union recognition procedure was introduced in the Employment Relations Act 1999.

Collective bargaining is not regulated by UK labour law as such. Parties enter into collective agreements voluntarily. Collective agreements are not legally binding in themselves, though in practice terms agreed through collective bargaining may be written into individual contracts of employment, which are legally binding.

There were no major changes to the laws relating to representation and collective bargaining throughout 2014, though changes to trade union law have been proposed with the trade union bill that was going through Parliament in late 2015.

Industrial relations context

The system of industrial relations in the UK is traditionally characterised by voluntary relations between the social partners, with a minimal level of interference from the state. There is a high level of decentralisation and a low level of coordination in relation to collective bargaining, with most taking place at the workplace or establishment level. Since 1999 statutory procedures have existed for establishing trade union recognition, though voluntary agreements have predominated.

Throughout the 1980s the Conservative governments pursued an anti-trade union agenda by imposing legal restrictions on trade unions’ ability to engage in industrial action and by privatising many areas of the public sector. During this time, many sectoral collective agreements in the private sector were dismantled and trade union membership fell markedly. The New Labour government elected in 1997 was more conciliatory towards the trade unions, though the approach throughout Labour’s period of office relied mainly on using individual legal employment rights to protect workers. Since 2010, when the Coalition government was elected, the ability to challenge employer behaviour has been restricted: settlement agreements have been promoted, fees have been introduced to access the tribunal system and pre-claim conciliation must now be considered. Mediation has also been promoted as a means of dispute resolution. Some of the previously established individual employment rights have been diminished. The most important is the increase in the qualifying period of service required before an employee can make a claim for unfair dismissal, which increased from one year to two years. The Conservative Party has also instigated debates about laws relating to industrial disputes, giving a clear signal that a future Conservative government would be more hostile to the trade union movement.

Actors and institutions

Trade unions, employers’ organisations and public institutions play a key role in the governance of the employment relationship, working conditions and industrial relations structures. They are interlocking parts in a multilevel system of governance that includes European, national, sectoral, regional (provincial or local) and company levels. This section looks at the main actors and institutions and their role in the United Kingdom.

Public authorities involved in regulating working life

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) is the main body, established by statute, involved in conciliation and arbitration in the UK. It is overseen by an independent council and its task is to improve industrial relations. It is involved in both individual and collective conciliation. In 2013 the introduction of compulsory early conciliation as a prerequisite for making an employment tribunal claim increased Acas’s involvement with individual cases.

The Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) is a tribunal non-departmental government body, sponsored by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). Its role is to resolve collective disputes in England, Scotland and Wales either by voluntary agreement, or if necessary, by a legal decision. For example, the CAC may rule on trade union recognition, establishing consultative committees or collective bargaining processes.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the national independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness. It acts in the public interest to reduce work-related death and serious injury across Great Britain’s workplaces. The HSE is an executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).


The issue of representativeness is largely unregulated in the UK. Formal ‘representativeness’ criteria for trade unions and employer bodies are generally not used. Representation is conducted largely on a voluntary basis, and is most commonly conducted at the workplace level.

The TUC represents 5,814,836 members in 52 unions (TUC, 2015). However, the TUC does not conclude or have the power to conclude collective agreements at any level. (There are further trade union members of unions that are not affiliated to the TUC.)

Similarly, the CBI has no role in collective bargaining. In a few sectors, such as construction, employers’ organisations are involved in sectoral-level collective bargaining, but this is unusual. Due to the largely decentralised nature of employment relations in the UK, employer organisations do not have a particularly prominent role in the country’s industrial relations.

More information on representativeness of the main social partner organisations can be found in Eurofound’s representativeness study of the cross-industry social partners or in Eurofound’s sectoral representativeness studies.

Trade unions

About trade union representation

Any worker or employee can join a trade union. In practice, employees or workers can join any union, which may or may not be recognised at their place of employment. As noted, the practice of recognition is largely voluntary.

Trade union membership is voluntary; the closed shop has been illegal in the UK since the Employment Act of 1990. Union density varies considerably by sector. BIS/ONS figures for 2013 (the latest data available) indicate density in the private sector at 14.4%, compared with 55.4% in the public sector (BIS, 2014).

Trade union density currently stands at just over 25%. It has been in decline for some time from its peak of 56.3% in 1980. Since 2004 there have been declines in both the private and public sectors. Private sector density fell from 17.3% to 14.4% in 2013. In the public sector the comparable figures are 58.8% and 55.4%. Overall density fell to 25.6% from 28.8% (BIS, 2014).

It might be expected that the balance of employment will shift slightly towards the private sector in the short term as further public sector cuts are anticipated.

Trade union membership and trade union density








Trade union density in terms of active employees






OECD/Visser (2014) 

Trade union membership in 1,000s






OECD/Visser (2014)

Main trade union confederations and federations

As noted, trade union membership is significantly lower than it was at its 1980 peak. In response to falling numbers there have been a number of union mergers over recent years, resulting in the formation of some large general unions.

The TUC website notes that there are 52 trade unions affiliated to the TUC in the UK. The annual report of the certification officer for trade unions and employers’ organisations for 2013–2014 notes that as at 31 March 2014, there were 162 trade union organisations (compared with 226 in 2000 and 306 in 1990) (Certification Office for Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, 2014).

Main trade union confederations and federations

Long name


Members as of January 2014

Involved in collective bargaining

Trades Union Congress





Note: Membership figures are as reported to the TUC for January 2014 and are taken from the TUC Directory 2015.

There have been no major changes in terms of representativeness. Union mergers were more common approximately 10 years ago, when larger general unions were formed in response to falling union numbers. There have been minor changes in whether or not unions choose to affiliate to the TUC.

Employers’ organisations

About employers’ representation

The TUC is paralleled on the employers’ side by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Like the TUC, the CBI has no mandate to collectively bargain and bind its affiliates. In general, the CBI represents companies in the private sector and is regarded by the government as its main interlocutor with business. Its membership comprises individual companies as direct members and many more via trade associations (around 150); the CBI claims to represent around 240,000 businesses in the UK. Other employers’ organisations operating in the UK include the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the Forum of Private Business (FPB). These organisations provide smaller businesses with a link to national and regional government and provide business advice and support. Current employer organisations that do engage in social and employment affairs include the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) and the Local Government Association (LGA). Employer organisation density in the UK is estimated at around 30–40%. Compared with trade unions, the level of information regarding employers’ organisations is poor.

Employers’ organisations ­– membership and density






Employers’ organisation density in terms of active employees

No data

No data

No data

Visser (2014)

Employers’ organisation density in private sector establishments*




European Company Survey 2013

* Percentage of employees working in an establishment that is a member of any employer organisation that is involved in collective bargaining.

Main employers’ organisations

Main employers’ organisations and confederations

Long name




Involved in collective bargaining

Confederation of British Industry


Around 7 million in approximately 190,000 businesses

2013 (CBI Annual Report and Accounts 2013)



British Chambers of Commerce


Over 5 million employees organised across 52 chambers

Current – from the BCC website


Tripartite and bipartite bodies and concertation

Owing to the UK voluntarist tradition, policy concertation has been uncommon and there are currently few formal mechanisms or forums for tripartite concertation in the country. From 1962 a tripartite National Economic Development Council existed, in which the government and UK social partners discussed economic policy, but this was abolished in 1992. In the late 1970s, consultation between the government, employers and trade unions was also growing in importance. However, the Thatcher government, which was elected in 1979, sought to eradicate any forms of corporatism. Since then, tripartism or corporatism has not been reintroduced on a comprehensive or formal basis.

The social partners report reduced tripartite engagement since the election of the coalition Conservative and Liberal Democrat government in 2010. They continue to be consulted by the public authorities on the direction of public policy in the country on an ad hoc basis, but such consultations are usually bilateral. The social partners in effect receive de facto recognition of their position by the government through their involvement in various consultations with government departments.

There is de facto tripartite representation in a series of agencies, and though the peak-level social partners are consulted about the nomination of employer and worker representatives on the boards of such bodies, they no longer have an automatic monopoly of the available seats.

For example, the social partners are represented on the Low Pay Commission (LPC), an independent UK body that issues recommendations for increases in the national minimum wage. The LPC board consists of nine members: three trade union representatives, three employers and three labour market relations experts. At the sectoral level, the UK social partners are involved in the sector skills councils (SSCs), which seek to improve the skills of workers in the UK.

The main issues for concertation are therefore skills and training and low pay.

Main tripartite and bipartite bodies

Name Type Level Issues covered

Low Pay Commission




Workplace-level employee representation

The main workplace-level channel of employee representation in the UK is via the recognition of trade unions by employers for the purposes of collective bargaining. The most authoritative UK study of workplace-level structures is the Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS).

According to the 2011 WERS, 22% of workplaces with five or more employees recognised at least one trade union. The incidence of union recognition is much higher in larger workplaces, and increased between the 2004 and 2011 WERS. In 2004, 44% of workplaces with 50 or more employees had union representation, and in 2011 this had increased to 50%. In addition, membership in the public sector was much higher in 2011, , at 92%, compared with 12% for private sector services and 9% for private sector manufacturing. The extent of union recognition has declined continually from the early 1980s.

Another channel of employee representation in some workplaces is that of joint consultative committees (JCCs), which are sometimes known as works councils or employee forums. These are broadly concerned with consultation rather than negotiation. Although in some cases JCCs are an alternative to, or substitute for, union representation, they are also prevalent in workplaces that recognise unions. The WERS 2004 found that JCCs were present in 14% of workplaces with over 50 staff. This number fell to 13% in 2011. Again, JCCs were more common in public sector workplaces and in larger workplaces. The proportion of workplaces with JCCs has been falling since the late 1980s, but between 1998 and 2004 the decline was primarily evident in workplaces with fewer than 100 employees; among larger workplaces, the incidence of JCCs was broadly stable. Between 2004 and 2011 the number of workplaces employing between 100 and 249 people with an on-site joint consultative committee doubled from 9% to 18%, but there were no statistically significant changes for other workplaces.

The primary basis for both union recognition and the establishment of JCCs has traditionally been voluntary agreement. However, since 1999 in the case of trade union recognition and 2004 in the case of information and consultation (ICE) arrangements, legislation has existed in the UK enabling unions and employees, respectively, to use statutory procedures to seek the introduction of representation arrangements where they are not established voluntarily. In practice, though, the effect of the legislation may have been ‘legally prompted voluntarism’. Trade unions naturally prefer recognition rather than seats on JCCs, which may explain why trade union response to the ICE regulations has been somewhat ambivalent.

Regulation, composition and competences of the bodies

  Regulation Composition Involved in company level collective bargaining Thresholds/rules when they need to be/can be set up 

Joint consultative committees

Not usually. JCCs may be set up according to statutory procedures, but the vast majority are voluntary. The Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) regulations are part of the Employment Relations Act 2004.

JCCs must include representatives from management and employees. Employee representatives can be trade union representatives.

The issues covered in JCC consultation are determined by the committees themselves rather than specified by legislation. The key is that these are consultative arrangements. They are not collective bargaining forums, nor are they negotiating meetings.

Most JCCs are set up via voluntary agreement. Trigger mechanisms apply for statutory regulation, but in organisations of 50 or more employees, 10% of employees are required to start the statutory procedures.

Employee representation at establishment level


ECS 2013

WERS 2011


% of employees covered

% of establishments covered

% of employees covered

% of establishments covered

Joint consultative committee





Recognised shop floor trade union representation





Source: ECS 2013: private sector establishments with more than 10 employees. WERS 2011: all workplaces with five or more employees.

Collective employment relations

Collective bargaining

Bargaining system

In the UK, the dominant level for the setting of pay and working time is the company or plant level in the private sector. In areas of the public sector – and in a small section of the private sector – sector-level agreements are concluded. In some parts of the public sector, pay levels are determined by pay review bodies (PRBs) that recommend levels to the government. Traditionally, the government has accepted the recommendations of the PRBs, though in the recent case of NHS workers, the recommendations were rejected, prompting industrial action.

There are no national intersectoral agreements in the UK, nor is there any tradition of this, aside from a very brief period in the 1970s. In 2011, the coverage rate of collective agreements in the UK was 31.2%. There is a large discrepancy between figures for the public and private sectors, with collective bargaining covering 67.8% of public sector employees in 2012, compared with 16.9% for the private sector (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2012).

In line with the UK voluntarist tradition, collective agreements are voluntary instruments that are ‘binding in honour only’. However, the terms of collective agreements are normally incorporated into individual contracts of employment that are then legally enforceable.

Wage bargaining coverage

The most common form of collective bargaining in the UK is at company level. Sectoral- and national-level bargaining are much less common. This pattern is well known and has been the generally accepted situation regarding collective bargaining since the 1980s.

The WERS 2004 and 2011 provide estimates for the percentage of workplaces where pay is determined via collective bargaining. In 2011, pay was set by multiemployer bargaining in 7% of workplaces, 5% set pay by single employer bargaining and 2% engaged in workplace-level bargaining. Large differences are observed by sector. For the categories of multiemployer bargaining, single employer bargaining and workplace-level bargaining, respectively, the 2011 figures are 43% public, 2% private; 17% public, 3% private; and 1% public, 2% private. The only significant change between 2004 and 2011 was the reduction in multiemployer bargaining in the public sector, which was down from 58% to 43%.

ONS figures continue to show a decline in the proportions of workers who are covered by collective agreements set between trade unions and employers’ organisations. The latest figures for 2014 show that 27.5% of workers are covered. The proportion has been in decline since ONS began this time series in 1996.

Collective wage bargaining coverage of employees from different sources


Percentage of employees covered


All levels


2013 – ECS

All, excluding national level


2013 – ECS

Any level


2010 – SES

Any level between employer and trade union


2014 – ONS

Sources: Eurofound, European Company Survey 2013 (ECS), private sector companies with >10 employees (NACE B–S) – multiple answers possible; Eurostat, Structure of Earnings Survey, companies with >10 employees (NACE B–S), single answer: more than 50% of employees covered by such an agreement. For more information on methodology, see here. ONS, variable is % of employees whose pay and conditions are agreed in negotiations between the employer and trade union.

Bargaining levels

In the UK, the dominant level for the setting of pay and working time is the company or plant level in the private sector. In areas of the public sector – and in a small section of the private sector – sector-level agreements are concluded.

Levels of collective bargaining, 2014


National level (intersectoral)

Sectoral level

Company level



Working time


Working time


Working time

Principal or dominant level







Important but not dominant level







Existing level








In the UK there are no formal mechanisms that link the different levels of bargaining.

Timing of the bargaining rounds

The bargaining round is generally viewed as commencing in the autumn (August) and finishing in the summer (July). Settlements are spread throughout the year, with some concentration between October and April.


No formal mechanisms exist for the coordination of wage bargaining in the UK. However, in practice, trade unions in different companies and sectors often share information with one another, and agreements in certain companies and sectors often act as informal benchmarks for negotiators in other areas.

Extension mechanisms

Collective agreements are not subject to extension and so are subsequently never extended by legislation, and there are no voluntary mechanisms for doing so.

Derogation mechanisms

Given the voluntary nature of the agreements, there is no need for derogations.

Expiry of collective agreements

If agreements expire or are not renegotiated, then in practical terms there is no effect. Given the nature of agreements, they are not legally binding. However, elements of agreements can and are written up into individual terms and conditions of employment, which are legally enforceable. Therefore, in practice the individual contract continues with the terms of the old agreement.

Other aspects of working life addressed in collective agreements

Recent evidence in the UK has shown a reduction in the breadth of issues covered by collective bargaining.

The 2011 WERS found ‘a significant diminution in the scope of [bargaining]’ since the previous survey in 2004. Comparison between the 2004 and 1998 surveys is not possible because of changes in the instruments. In 2011, of seven issues specified, negotiations occurred on all of these in, or covering, just 3% of private sector workplaces where trade unions were recognised, compared to 8% in 2004, and none of the items had been subject to negotiation in, or covering, 37% of workplaces, as compared with 28% in 2004. By issue, there were substantial declines concerning working hours, holidays, pensions and training, leaving pay as the only issue negotiated over in many workplaces.

Industrial action and disputes

Legal aspects

Trade unions in the UK do not enjoy the right to strike per se. Rather, they have protection from common law torts in certain, restricted, circumstances.

In practice, the most common forms of industrial action are:

  • strikes;
  • action short of a strike, which may include ‘work to rule’ and/or an overtime ban.

Incidence of different forms of industrial action between 2010 and 2013

Work-to-rule or refusal to do overtime


Work stoppage or strike for less than a day


Strike of a day or more


Blockade or occupation


Percentage of private sector establishments reporting any form of industrial action during the indicated period.

Source: European Company Survey

Industrial action developments 2012–2013




Working days lost per 1,000 employees



Number of strikes



Workers involved (1,000s)



Days lost by reason (1,000s)

Wage disputes:


Other (including redundancy):



Wage disputes:


Other (including redundancy):


Source: ONS Labour Disputes Annual Article 2013

Dispute resolution mechanisms

Collective dispute resolution mechanisms

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) is the main body involved in conciliation and arbitration in the UK. It is an autonomous, tripartite body established by statute and its task is to improve industrial relations. The largest part of Acas’s work is individual conciliation, which was extended in 2013 with the introduction of compulsory early conciliation as a prerequisite for making an employment tribunal claim. Arbitration is a relatively small part of its work, mainly because it has no powers to arbitrate without the consent of both sides. Arbitration is neither compulsory nor legally binding.

Individual dispute resolution mechanisms

Individual employees may seek to resolve disputes informally through dispute resolution mechanisms that their employer has in place or they may seek redress through the tribunal system.

Since 6 May 2014, anyone wishing to make a claim to an employment tribunal must first notify Acas in order to provide an opportunity to resolve their dispute through the early conciliation process and without the need for a claim. From 6 April, this service was available on a voluntary basis. Since 2013, fees have been applied to bring cases to an employment tribunal. The introduction of fees has been challenged in the courts by the Unison trade union.

Tribunal statistics and early conciliation statistics are available, but because early conciliation is new and the tribunal process has changed markedly since the introduction of fees, there is a major discontinuity in the data.

Statistics on applications to tribunals (notifications) and take-up of early conciliation are available on the Acas website. These figures are difficult to interpret due to the legislative context and the procedure for taking a case to tribunal. For example, the first quarterly update gives the percentage of cases where early conciliation was rejected by either the employer or employee. However, this does not mean that all other cases proceeded to tribunal: some will have been withdrawn, other settlements may have been brokered and some will still be pending.

Individual employment relations

Start and termination of the employment relationship

Requirements regarding an employment contract

Children are able to undertake some part-time paid employment from the age of 13, or younger in areas such as modelling, television and theatre if they have a performance licence. They may only undertake full-time employment once they have reached the minimum school-leaving age, which is the end of the academic year when they turn 17.

Acas guidelines on contracts of employment state: ‘A contract “starts” as soon as an offer of employment is accepted. Starting work proves that you accept the terms and conditions offered by the employer’ and ‘Most employees are legally entitled to a Written Statement of the main terms and conditions of employment within two calendar months of starting work. This should include details of things like pay, holidays and working hours.’

Dismissal and termination procedures

Employees have the right not to be unfairly dismissed if they have worked for an employer for over two years. If an employee has less than two years’ service, they may claim unfair dismissal in a few circumstances, such as if the dismissal is related to discrimination or a protected disclosure. For a dismissal to be fair in law, it must be for one of the following reasons: conduct, capability, illegality or some other substantial reason. The employer should also have followed the steps laid out in the Acas code of practice for discipline and grievance.

Part of the Acas code of practice sets out that employers should establish their own written procedures to deal with discipline and grievance. In the case of a dismissal, failure to follow or to have a written procedure does not in itself make the dismissal unfair.

Entitlements and obligations

Parental, maternity and paternity leave

Take-up of additional paternity leave has been low – estimated as only 1.4% of new fathers in 2012–2013. Official statistics are not produced for this measure, but it can be estimated from returns by businesses to claim back the payment. Cultural factors have been cited as a reason for this along with the fact that the statutory pay is often much less than fathers’ wages or salaries, making it financially difficult to take leave.

Statutory leave arrangements


Maximum duration

Rate of reimbursement

Who pays

Legal basis

Maternity leave

52 weeks. The earliest point at which leave can begin is 11 weeks before the due date.

Two weeks’ leave are compulsory following the birth. (For factory workers, the compulsory leave is four weeks.)


If the mother qualifies, Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) is paid for up to 39 weeks.

90% of average weekly earnings (before tax) are paid for the first six weeks.

GBP 138.18 or 90% of average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) is paid for the next 33 weeks.


SMP is paid by the employer, though it can be recouped from the government. Usually the employer can recoup 92% of the amount, though if the company qualifies for Small Employers’ Relief, the full amount – plus 3% for National Insurance contributions – can be claimed back.

The provisions for maternity leave are established through the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999 and subsequent amendments.

Parental leave

Shared parental leave was introduced in the UK for babies born or adopted after 5 April 2015.

The leave is paid at the same level as SMP. It is paid at the same level throughout for 39 weeks. In other words, there is a maximum payment for the first six weeks which does not apply in the case of SMP.

As above.

Shared Parental Leave Regulations 2014

Paternity leave

There is no mandatory period of paternity leave. Employees are entitled to two weeks’ statutory paid leave. As with all schemes, employers may choose to enhance the period and/or the pay.

Same rate as for SMP.

As above.

Statutory Paternity Pay and Statutory Adoption Pay (General) Regulations 2002


Sick leave

Sick pay may be contractual, in which case it may be on the basis of full salary (for a period) or such lesser sum (if any) as the employer deems fit to pay. Entitlement to statutory sick pay (SSP) arises only after three successive days of sickness. or in other words, on the fourth day (whether or not these fall on work days). Only workers who earn at least the lower threshold for National Insurance contributions (GBP 111 as of 6 April 2014) are eligible to GBP 87.55 a week from 6 April 2014. It is payable for a maximum 28 weeks. Since 6 April 2014 employers can no longer recoup SSP. Statutory sick pay is not truly related to earnings (over and above the threshold), but contractual sick pay typically is. Privileged workers (including many in the public sector) may be eligible to full pay for six months followed by half pay for a further six months. This takes the form of the employer ‘topping up’ the statutory rate.

Termination of an employment contract on the grounds of sickness may be legal depending on a range of issues, including whether the employer has followed the Acas code of practice and whether suitable alternative employment has been considered. If the employee is suffering from a disability as defined by the 2010 Equality Act, then the employer is obliged to consider whether ‘reasonable adjustments’ could help the employee return to work before any decision is taken to dismiss.

Retirement age

There is no longer a default retirement age (DRA) for UK employees. Most employees can work for as long as they want. Some employers can set a maximum retirement age if they are able to justify the decision.


Minimum wages

A national minimum wage has been in place in the UK since 1997.

The rate is set by the Low Pay Commission (LPC), which advises the government on low pay and recommends appropriate rates. There are four tiers of national minimum wage rates: the full adult rate; a ‘development’ rate for younger adults; a rate for workers aged 16 and 17; and a rate for apprentices. Until 1 October 2010, the full adult rate applied from the age of 22 and the development rate applied to workers aged 18–21. From 1 October 2010, the full adult rate applies to workers aged 21 and over and the development rate applies to workers aged 18–20.

The current national minimum wage rates (from 1 October 2015) are:

  • the adult rate is GBP 6.70 per hour;
  • the rate for 18- to 20-year-olds is GBP 5.30 per hour;
  • the rate for 16- to 17-year-olds is GBP 3.87 per hour;
  • the apprentice rate is GBP 3.30 per hour.

For more information regarding the level and development of minimum wages, please see Eurofound’s annual update on developments in collectively agreed pay or visit Eurostat.

Collectively agreed pay outcomes

For more detailed information on the most recent outcomes in terms of collectively agreed pay, please consult Eurofound’s collective wage bargaining portal or Eurofound’s most recent annual update on developments in collectively agreed pay.

Working time

This section briefly summarises regulations and issues regarding working time, overtime, and part-time work as well as working time flexibility in the United Kingdom.

Working time regulation

The statutory maximum working week is 48 hours, though workers/firms may ‘opt out’ of this limit. The 48-hour maximum is calculated over a reference period which is normally 17 weeks.

Working time has featured as an issue in collective bargaining for many years. In recent years there have been negotiations around reduced hours of work to reduce redundancies.

For more detailed information on working time (including annual leave, statutory and collectively agreed working time), please consult Eurofound’s most recent annual update on working time.

Overtime regulation

Overtime in the UK is largely unconstrained, as individual workers may opt out of the 48-hour maximum working week. Health and safety legislation may regulate overtime in certain industries. Collective bargaining, which is most commonly undertaken at the company or establishment level, rarely regulates overtime. Decisions on overtime are more commonly taken on an ad hoc basis.

Part-time work

Part-time work is not defined in legal terms. Full-time workers usually work at least 35 hours per week. Figures for 2013 indicate that 26.9% of those employed are in part-time work. Between 2008 and 2009, the proportion of part-time workers increased by 0.8 percentage points to 26.1%. Since 2009, the proportion has not dropped below 26%, whereas in the years between 2002 and 2009 it did not exceed this figure. Since the economic crisis, it has been reported in various sources that growth has tended to be concentrated in low-paid and part-time work.

Part-time workers have legal protection against less favourable treatment on the grounds of their part-time status.

Working time flexibility

On 30 June 2014, the UK government introduced the right to request flexible working. This extended the right to request flexible working to all groups, whereas previously the right to request it had been restricted to those with childcare or other caring commitments. Employers can still refuse requests for business reasons, and in practice many employers operated similar policies prior to the legislation. Therefore, the figures in the table reflect the position under the previous legislation.

Proportion of establishments reporting that employees have the possibility to adapt the start and end of their working day according to their personal needs

Establishment size

None or fewer than 20% in the establishment

Between 20–80% in the establishment

More than 80% in the establishment

















Source: European Company Survey 2013

Health and well-being

Health and safety at work

The UK data indicate that the number of accidents has been falling since 2008. Data are missing for 2009 and 2010, meaning that year-on-year comparisons are only possible for the years 2011 and 2012. Between 2011 and 2012, accidents decreased in absolute terms by 8.5%, and from 6.4 to 5.9 per 1,000 employees.

Accidents at work, with four days’ absence or more – working days lost







All accidents




Percent change on previous year






Per 1,000 employees






Source: Eurostat, [hsw_mi01] and [lfsa_eegaed]

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides information on the types of accidents based on the RIDDOR scheme. Regulations on reporting were amended in 2013, meaning that exact year-on-year comparison is not possible. However, the trend is that major injuries have been falling.

Number of non-fatal major accidents, 2009–2014






2013–2014 (provisional)

Non-fatal major accidents (total)






Note: For 2013–2014, the figures refer to the new category of ‘major or specified injuries’.

Source: HSE

Psychosocial risks

The HSE monitors risks at work and guidance is produced to deal with psychosocial risks. For example, there are separate guidance documents on stress for organisations, managers and employees. In practice, collective agreements may cover issues such as workloads and rest periods and other issues that are psychosocial risk factors.

The data in the table indicate that of the psychosocial risk factors, high work intensity is the one that is most commonly experienced. In 2000 and 2010, over two-thirds of workers reported working to tight deadlines at least a quarter of the time. The figure was slightly lower for 2005, but still stood at 63.5%. Approximately one-third of workers reported working more than 10 hours at least once a month for each of the three survey waves. Discrimination was found to be much less common than the other two psychosocial risk factors, with approximately one in twenty workers reporting having experienced this in the 2005 and 2010 surveys. The data do not give information on the proportions of workers who have experienced risk factors in combination.

Selected working condition indicators affecting psychosocial risks





Work intensity: Working to tight deadlines at least a quarter of the time




Long working hours: Working more than 10 hours once or more per month




Discrimination: Having been subjected to discrimination at work over the past 12 months



Source: Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey

More detailed figures are available from Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey.

Skills, learning and employability

National system for ensuring skills and employability

Skills policy in the UK is largely developed through skills councils, which are based on sectors of the economy. These bodies are employer led, though there is often trade union representation. There are currently 16 sector skills councils (SSCs) and five sector skills bodies. These bodies are responsible for working with employers to define skills needs and skills standards in their sectors.

In the case of those in receipt of out-of-work benefits, a condition of benefit eligibility may be referral by the state agency responsible for benefit payments, to training or skill development. In such cases, the training or skill development is often of a generic nature and is not targeted at entry to particular sectors or jobs. The social partners are largely excluded from this process, though there may be involvement from employers or employer groups on local skills boards.


The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) is the main body responsible for offering guidance on skills and development issues in the UK. UKCES is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The commissioners represent business, the trade unions and employment advisors.

The figures for paid time off for training reveal a clear association between the proportion of employees who have been able to access this and employee representation at the company or establishment level. The figures for companies with employee representation are similar even when establishment size is taken into consideration. Across all sizes of establishments with employee representation, more than 80% of workplaces gave at least 20% of employees paid time off for training. The figures for establishments that do not have employee representation show lower proportions of employees being able to access training, and the proportions are lowest in smaller establishments. Sixty per cent of establishments with 10–49 employees, and no representation, gave paid time off for training to less than 20% of employees, compared with 41% of establishments with 50–249 employees and 37% of establishments with 250 employees or more.

Proportion of employees receiving paid time off for training, by existence of workplace employee representation and establishment size

Establishment size

Employee representation at establishment or company exists

None or fewer than 20% in the establishment

Between 20–80% in the establishment

More than 80% in the establishment































Source: European Company Survey 2013

Work organisation

Work organisation underpins economic and business development and has important consequences for productivity, innovation and working conditions. Eurofound research finds that some types of work organisation are associated with a better quality of work and employment. Therefore, developing or introducing different forms of work organisation is of particular interest because of the expected effect on productivity, efficiency and competitiveness of companies, as well as on workers’ working conditions. Ongoing research by Eurofound, based on EurWORK, the European Working Conditions Survey and the European Company Survey, monitors developments in work organisation.

For the United Kingdom, the European Company Survey 2013 shows that between 2010 and 2013, 40% of establishments with 10 or more employees reported changes in the use of technology, 24% introduced changes in ways to coordinate and allocate the work to workers and another 18% saw changes in their working time arrangements.

Equality and non-discrimination at work

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, religion and belief, marital status and age.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is a non-departmental public body (NDPB), established under the Equality Act 2006 as a corporate body. Its role is to challenge all forms of discrimination and to promote and protect human rights. As such, its remit covers issues relating to equality at work.

Equal pay and gender pay gap

From a legal point of view, the right to equal pay for equal work between men and women is found in the Equality Act 2010.

The Act implies a sex equality clause into everyone’s contract of employment, modifying any term that is less favourable to someone of the opposite sex. The European Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission publish codes of practice, which although not legally binding may be used in evidence in equal pay claims.

The law requires a four-stage approach:

  • selecting an appropriate comparator of the opposite sex;
  • proving that the comparator is employed to carry out equal work;
  • comparing the claimant’s and the comparator’s terms and conditions of employment;
  • assessing whether the employer can explain any discrepancy in pay (‘the material factor defence’) and whether the difference is due to sex discrimination.

According to Eurostat data, the gender pay gap in the UK narrowed substantially between 2002 and 2007, from 27.3% to 20.8%. Since 2002, progress towards more equal pay has slowed and the gap has remained around 20% (19.1% for 2012).

If available, you can also refer to the most important/recent national studies which provide figures The ONS also provides information on the gender pay gap using statistics from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). From 2009, the ONS has highlighted the following aspects of the gender pay gap:

  • female full-time employees’ median pay compared with male full-time employees’ median pay;
  • female part-time employees’ median pay compared with male part-time employees’ median pay;
  • all female employees’ median pay compared with all male employees’ median pay.

The latest ASHE estimates (2014) provide a gender pay gap of 19.1% for all employees. Unlike the Eurostat data, the ONS data show a steady narrowing of the gap rather than the gap remaining constant or growing.

The TUC has been keen to encourage its member trade unions to include gender issues in collective bargaining. The TUC tracks progress of its affiliates in terms of their equality actions in its biennial equality audit. It reports that unions have achieved most success in negotiating around women’s pay and employment in the last three years, in particular gaining employer agreement to carry out equal pay audits and take steps to improve the pay of the lowest paid, who are predominantly women in many workplaces. Equal pay remains a bargaining priority for most unions. The equality audit also revealed that trade unions have frequently been able to negotiate an extension to the statutory rights to flexible working. Just under half of unions identified that they had negotiated flexible working policies with employers that went beyond the statutory minimum. The TUC biennial equality audit offers many examples of innovative practice to improve gender equality at work.

Employment tribunals can order an employer to carry out an equal pay audit in circumstances where it is clear they have breached the equal pay provisions in the Equality Act 2010. This power came into force on 1 October 2014.

Quota regulations

The idea of quotas for women on company boards has been discussed and was the subject of a review, which decided not to recommend quotas at the time, though this option would be considered if further progress towards greater equality was not made (BIS, 2011). The Women on Boards steering board meets every six months to review progress and reports are produced annually.

According to the Equality Act, setting quotas would count as positive discrimination, which would be unlawful. However, it is not unlawful for an employer to treat, for example, a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person. This is known as positive action. In relation to disability, the ‘two ticks’ system would guarantee an interview for a job vacancy for every disabled person who met the minimum entry criteria (Government Equalities Office, 2011).


Certification Office for Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations (2014), Annual report of the Certification Officer 2013–2014, London.

Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) (2011), Women on boards.

Department for Business, Skills and Innovation (BIS) (2014), Trade union membership 2013, Statistical Bulletin, London.

Government Equalities Office (2011), Equality Act 2010: What do I need to know? A quick start guide to using positive action in recruitment and promotion.

TUC (2013), ‘Involuntary temporary jobs driving rising employment’, press release.

TUC (2015), TUC Directory 2015, London.

Visser, J. (2014), ‘ICTWSS database: Database on institutional characteristics of trade unions, wage setting, state intervention and social pacts in 34 countries between 1960 and 2014’, Institute for Advanced Labour Studies, AIAS, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam. http://www.uva-aias.net/207

van Wanrooy, B., Bewley, H., Bryson, A., Forth, J., Freeth, S., Stokes, L. and Wood, S. (2013), Employment relations in the recession: Findings from the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.


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