New rights for workers a potential legal minefield

Dec 01 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Major new changes to UK employment law come into force this week, a result of the EU Equal Treatment Framework Directive that requires member states to outlaw discrimination in the workplace on grounds of sexual orientation and religion or belief by 2 December 2003.

The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 means that from 1 December, all employers, irrespective of their size, will have a duty to deal with discrimination against their employees and other workers on grounds of sexual orientation (whether heterosexual, gay or lesbian or bisexual).

From 2 December it will also be unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of religion, religious or philosophical belief.

The new rights are intended to protect lesbian, gay and bisexual employees and students from discrimination including bullying and exclusion from employee benefits, training and promotion opportunities.

The TUC welcomed the legislation. Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary said: “These rights are a massive leap towards fairness for lesbian, gay and bisexual employees but we want them to go all the way. It’s a shame to have to go to court to achieve this but we have worked hard for these new rights and we want them to be solid.”

But some lawyers warned that defining what is meant by ‘religious or philosophical belief’ would be a legal minefield, particularly since religion could have implications in areas such as workplace catering and holiday entitlement. Employers are also concerned that firms could face a deluge of frivolous or malicious complaints from staff.

As the new legislation comes into force, figures released by the journal Equal Opportunities Review (EOR) show that UK firms were forced to pay out £6.4m to settle discrimination claims in 2002, up by two-thirds year on year.

EOR editor, Sue Johnstone said today that that the record-breaking awards serve as a warning to employers that discrimination can be costly.

“Employers owe it to their stakeholders to ensure that they are not embroiled in costly and stressful tribunal procedures. The tragedy is that discrimination in the workplace can so easily be avoided,’ she said.

Employment lawyer Veronica Dean from Hammonds said that the new legislation made the need for employers to educate staff vitally important:

"This legislation will have an immediate impact on employers as we know there is already a group of people with cases that need answering. It is important that employers educate both workers and managers on this issue.

"Also, Christmas parties with too much alcohol are a potential breeding ground for claims under this legislation, so it is important that employers take preventative measures."