Employee rights should be high on firms' agendas

Elaine Aarons says signing on to the Social Chapter is likely to have a significant impact on all law firms. Elaine Aarons is an employment law partner at Eversheds and chair of the Employers Forum on EU Social Policy.

Britain's opt-out from the Social Chapter ended at the meeting of the EU Council of Ministers last December.

All measures except those concerning European Works Councils will be relevant to law firms. Domestic legislation to implement the Parental Leave Directive is required by December 1999 and the UK has also agreed to proceed with directives dealing with the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases and sexual harassment.

It will not end there. The Social Chapter provides procedures for social legislation to be introduced which can be used in the future to extend employment rights in other areas. Firms need to be alert to future developments the Parental Leave Directive introduces a right to at least three months unpaid leave on the birth or adoption of a child in addition to maternity and paternity leave. Domestic legislation can set out:

a maximum length of leave;

when it can be taken;

rules as to eligibility;

a right for employers to postpone leave for business reasons;

social security entitlements while on leave.

The directive establishes new employment protection rights in order to safeguard the right to parental leave. The directive protects employees from unfair dismissal for taking leave. Employees will have the right to return to the same or equivalent job after parental leave.

The directive also provides a right to leave “for urgent family reasons”. Member states can determine the amount and conditions of such leave. European legislation is also expected:

the Burden of Proof Directive regarding sex discrimination cases will be extended soon to include the UK. This will highlight employers' responsibility to make bias-free decisions and to record them. Member states must implement the directive by January 2001 the UK may have longer;

a directive giving legal status to the existing EU recommendation on sexual harassment;

a directive to strike a new balance between flexible working and worker protection rights dealing with temporary and fixed-term contracts, teleworking, homeworking, sub-contract labour and so on. This, coupled with the Part-Time Work Directive, will provide protection for individuals whose employers have been seeking to exclude them from employment rights.

These measures will force a change in attitude in the UK towards employer/employee relations. Information and consultation will become integral to the workplace.

While in its current form all but the largest law firms are immune to the European Works Councils Directive, a more significant number is likely to be affected when the directive is reviewed in 1999. The impact will be significant, requiring a formal exchange of ideas between management and staff and greater disclosure of information than many partners have yet contemplated.