When Working Conditions Cross the Line into Discrimination or Exploitation

09 September 2015

Earlier this month The New York Times published an article highlighting the tough working practices employed at the online giant Amazon.

Many allegations against the corporate culture at Amazon were made, including employees being forced to answer emails after hours, being expected to pay for business expenses out of their own pocket and the encouragement of tearing apart colleagues ideas in meetings; with one former employee recorded as saying, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

In response to the article, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, sent a memo to all employees stating, “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

Whether the revelations are true or not, the question being asked by many employees is, “When do tough working conditions cross the line into abuse and exploitation?” After all, many people thrive in challenging corporate ‘dog eat dog’ type environments, whereas others can suffer severe physiological damage.

Employee Rights in the UK

In the United Kingdom, employee rights are derived from both UK legislation and the employee’s employment contract, which can be either written or verbal.

There is no statutory obligation for an employer to provide you with an employment contract, however, they must provide you with a Written Statement of Employment within two months of you commencing employment. A Written Statement of Employment will outline the main conditions of your employment, including your rights provided by legislation, which include:

  • the right to an itemised payslip
  • the right to paid holiday
  • the right to receive the minimum wage
  • the right under Health & Safety law to work a maximum of 48 hours a week (subject to exceptions)
  • the right to daily and weekly rest breaks (subject to exceptions)

Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been keen enforce these minimum worker rights. On 26 May 2015 the government introduced a ban on exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts under Section 153 of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015.

Therefore, provisions in zero hours contracts which prohibit workers for working for other employers (or prohibit them from doing so without the employer’s consent) are therefore unenforceable. Section 27A of the Employment Rights Act 1996 provides a statutory definition of a zero hours contract and section 27A(3) makes certain restrictions in zero hours contracts unenforceable. A new section 27B allows regulations to be made preventing further restrictions on zero hours workers.

In a press release, the Government announced it was planning to introduce tougher penalties to ensure employers observe current national minimum wage rates and the incoming national living wage rules. New rules will double the penalty for non-payment of the national minimum wage and create a new team within HMRC charged with the task of bringing criminal prosecutions for non-compliance.

The important fact for all employees to note is that regardless of whether or not they have an employment contract, they are entitled to certain statutory rights as outlined below.

Statutory Rights - Normal Pay

Under Section 8 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, an employee is entitled to receive an itemised payslip either before or at the time of being paid. Legislation also provides that an employer may not make any deductions to an employee’s wage without their consent (which must be in writing), unless it is authorised by the employment contract or by legislation, such as National Insurance contributions.

An employer must also meet their requirements under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010 and pay men and women equal pay for equal work.

Statutory Rights - Sick Pay

Aside from a few exceptions, all employees are entitled to receive statutory sick pay from their employers. The basic entitlement allows employees to receive £88.45 per week for up to 28 weeks and you must be off work for 4 days or more.

Statutory Rights - Holiday Pay

All workers in the UK are entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid holiday per year. For the average full time employee, this amounts to 28 days per annum. Part-time workers receive the same entitlement; however, it is prorated to reflect the hours they are contracted to do. Contrary to popular belief, there is no legal right to have a paid day off on public or bank holidays.

Statutory Rights - Rest Breaks

If you are working more than six hours in any one day you are entitled to take an uninterrupted, 20 minute rest break under the Working Time Regulations 1998. Under Regulation 10 of the Working Time Regulations 1998, a worker is entitled to a rest period of 11 consecutive hours rest in each 24 hour period during which he works for his employer.

There are exceptions however, for example if there is a foreseeable surge in the work coming into the business (for example, a florist in mid-February).

Workers also have the right to either:

  • an uninterrupted 24 hours without any work each week
  • an uninterrupted 48 hours without any work each fortnight

As a general rule, employers should also ensure workers who are working in a monotonous role that their health and safety is not at risk.

Right to Health and Safety Being Protected

Your rights in this area include:

  • as far as possible, to have any risks to your health and safety properly controlled
  • to be provided with any personal protective and safety equipment free of charge
  • to stop work and leave your work area, without consequence if you have reasonable concerns about your safety
  • to inform your employer about any health and safety concerns you have

The Equality Act 2010

Another significant piece of legislation that protects employee rights in the UK is the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act is designed to make it illegal to discriminate at work, either deliberately or indirectly, against any person for one of nine characteristics protected under the Act. Those nine characteristics are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender Reassignment
  • Marriage and Civil Partnership
  • Pregnancy and Maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or Belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation

One of the key changes that the Act introduced was to make it illegal to discriminate against someone by perception and association.


If an individual dresses or acts in a certain way and as a result, an employer perceives that they have one of the nine protected characteristics and discriminates against them, they have committed an illegality under the Act, even if the other person was not what the employer perceived them to be.


An employer may not discriminate against an employee because they are associated with someone who has a protected characteristic. For example, if a worker’s child has received a gender reassignment, it is a breach of the Act for their employer to discriminate against him or her because of this fact.

Hidden Exploitation at Work

equal pay

Figure 1 Courtesy CMI

Although the UK is a signatory to the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention 1957, there are still some areas in our employment culture that could be considered exploitative.

For example, according to the Gender Salary Survey, which looked at the earnings of more than 72,000 managers in the UK, women are paid 22% less than men and thereby work for free for almost two hours a day. The British Government has also stated that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 workers in the UK who are effectively ‘modern slaves’, trafficked from countries such as Lithuania and working in domestic service, factories and agriculture.

What To Do if Your Employment Rights have Been Breached

Any victims of ‘modern slavery’ need to contact the authorities immediately for assistance in order to protect their safety.

If you feel that your employer has breached your statutory legislative employment rights, or is discriminating against you because of your race, religion, or one of the other nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, you may have a right to make a claim for damages in the Employment Tribunal.

We believe that employees in the UK have a right to be protected from discrimination and to have their statutory employment rights upheld.

Information Sources:

New York Times article & UK Government Press Release.

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