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Zero hours does not mean zero protection

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Employers can often be lulled into a false sense of security with the use of zero hours contracts and forget that those employees employed under such contracts are still protected by employment legislation. Employees on zero hours contracts can still bring claims in an Employment Tribunal and those claims can have significant value as a recent case demonstrates.

In the case of Southern v Britannia Hotels Ltd and another ET/1800507/14 an Employment Tribunal has held that a waitress working on a zero hours contract in a hotel owned by Britannia Hotels Limited, is entitled to £19,500 in damages for injury to feelings following her successful claim of harassment relating to gender.

The waitress in question, Miss Southern, is a 22 year old woman with a history of mental health issues (of which the employer was aware). Over a period of eight months, Miss Southern was the subject of continual harassment of a sexual nature at the hands of her line manager.

In a meeting with the hotel manager regarding another matter Miss Southern made complaints about this behaviour of her line manager. Following these complaints, Britannia carried out no fewer than three investigations into the complaints raised. The Employment Tribunal found that these investigations were at best, cursory and at worst, wholly inadequate. The Employment Tribunal concluded that Britannia did not appear to have the slightest interest in getting to grips with what had actually happened.

When Britannia’s internal investigations failed to resolve matters, Miss Southern submitted a claim to the Employment Tribunal. The Employment Tribunal found in Miss Southern’s favour and made an award of damages.

Miss Southern made several references in her evidence before the Employment Tribunal to her fear that by pursuing her complaint about her line manager she would lose work. As the Claimant’s harasser was also her line manager and in charge of her working hours, she believed that he could deny the Claimant work if he was minded to do so. This would clearly be less of a concern to an employee who was working fixed hours.

This case is an excellent example of how not to conduct an investigation into discrimination and harassment allegations but more than that, it is a warning to employers who do not consider zero hours employees have the same rights and protections afforded to other employees. This belief is misplaced.

This employee was awarded a fairly high sum in respect of an injury to feelings award. This was partly due to the nature of the behaviour complained of and partly due to the Claimant’s vulnerability (her age and history of mental heath issues). In addition, the Employment Tribunal alluded to the fact that it considered the Claimant’s zero hour status actually contributed to her vulnerability.

It may be that in future, Employment Tribunals will give more weight to the employment status and security of the employee when considering vulnerability and accordingly what award to make.

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