Vulnerability of Zero Hours Workers and Claims of Discrimination

June 5, 2015

Employers need to make sure they take any complaints of discrimination made by zero hours workers seriously and treat them in the same manner as they would treat complaints made by any other employee. There is no limit on the amount of compensation which can be awarded in cases of unlawful discrimination and in the recent case of Southern v Britannia Hotels Ltd, an employment tribunal granted a substantial award of £19,500 to a zero hours worker who was subjected to harassment by her line manager.

Miss Southern was employed as a waitress by Britannia Hotels Limited under a zero hours contract. She alleged that she had been subjected to harassment by her line manager who would frequently ask her about her sex life. When she complained to another line manager she was told to lodge a written complaint. The harassing behaviour got worse and also became physical in nature. Miss Southern subsequently informed the hotel manager and indicated that she was worried about saying anything directly to her line manager in case this resulted in a reduction of her shifts. She was again asked to lodge a formal complaint, which she did. The subsequent investigation was inadequate and no disciplinary action was taken against the line manager. No detailed account of the harassment was sought in the course of the investigation and when a witness to the harassment was identified, only ten minutes was spent interviewing her.

Miss Southern subsequently lodged a claim for harassment to the employment tribunal. Upon receipt of the claim the employer decided to re-open the investigation, but this was again conducted poorly and without reference to documentation from the previous investigation.

The tribunal concluded that Miss Southern had been harassed by her line manager and Britannia was vicariously liable for it. The tribunal made an award of £19,500 for injury to feelings against Britannia and the line manager. The tribunal gave weight to the employment status and job security of the claimant when considering her vulnerability in determining an appropriate award for injury to feelings.

Aside from providing a useful example for employers of how not to conduct an investigation into allegations of harassment, this case demonstrates the approach tribunals may take when determining appropriate awards for injury to feelings where workers have increased vulnerability due to the nature of their employment. Employers should be mindful of this, particularly when dealing with complaints of discrimination or harassment brought by those on zero hours contracts.

Jonathan Simpson
T: 028 9027 1304

Please note: The content of this article is for information purposes only and further advice should be sought from a professional advisor before any action is taken.