A brief history of employment rights – focussing on Equality Law

The UK has been developing employment legislation since 1833 with Abolition of Slavery Act and the Factory Act 1833 which prohibited the employment of children under 9. So, things have changed a lot over the last 150 years and we can happily say, that now people in employment  have workers’ rights.   We now have Health and Safety legislation, a minimum wage , maternity leave, paternity leave etc,. We have legislation to ensure that people are treated fairly at work and in this blog, Hannah Marshall explains equality legislation and the background to it..

In 2010,   the government introduced The Equality Act and it received cross-party support for nearly all of its provisions. In 2016 the government made it mandatory for employers (with over 250 employees) to publish their gender pay gap statistics. These are just two important pieces of legislation that have encouraged or sought to monitor equality in the workplace.

Equality in the work place has not always been enforced by law, in fact it wasn’t until 1975 with the Sex Discrimination Act that equality began to be introduced into law. The act made sex discrimination illegal in the areas of employment, education and the provision of goods, facilities and services.  Prior to the Act, employers could ask about your plans for having a family and up until 1973, you could be fired from the Foreign Office if you married.

This was closely followed in 1976 by the Race Relations Act which was established to prevent race discrimination. It made race discrimination unlawful in employment, training, housing, education and the provisions of goods, facilities and services.  Our rights are based on the actions of many brave people and the foundations of the Act were laid by a cricketer from Trinidadian cricketer sueing a hotel for discriminating against him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_v_Imperial_Hotels_Ltd  

It wasn’t until 1995 that the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced which was the first far-reaching legislation on discrimination against disabled people and it set out that employers should make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people were not disadvantaged at work.

 In 2010 The Equality Act brought together more than 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single act – a new streamlined legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all[1].  

The 2010 Act was the culmination of 14 years of work by human rights activists and lobbyists which resulted in the UK[2];

1. Adopting a unitary or integrated perspective of equality law enforced by a single commission

2. Clarifying the definitions of discrimination, harassment and victimisation and applying them across all protected characteristics

3. Expanding positive duties on public authorities to advance equality in respect of all 9 protected characteristic. (sex/sexual orientation/pregnancy and maternity/marriage and civil partnerhsip/age/race/belief/gender reassignment,

The Act is representative of the fifth generation of equality in employment and recognises that equal treatment does not mean identical treatment and that full and effective equality entails accommodating differences.

The Act means that both employers and employees must not discriminate against others, based on any of the protected characteristics.

The Act is enforced by Employment Tribunals so if an employee considers they have been discriminated against, they can take action against their employer and the Tribunal considers their case and may impose a fine on the employer.

More recently, in 2016, the government made it mandatory for firms with over 200 employees to declare their gender pay gap statistics (the percentage difference between men’s and women’s median hourly earnings, across all jobs in the UK[3]). This is another exciting and more recent development when it comes to equality in the workplace. This data includes presentation of pay by quartile which provides a useful insight into seniority gaps (where women do not reach top jobs in firms). There are of course many reasons for this, not all indicative of an unequal workplace, but this data, over time, can provide statistics for wider research into this area as well as show trends over time. In 2018 the gender pay gap fell to 8.6% among full-time employees, a trend shown by this only recently mandatory publishing of data.

The 2010 Equality Act was an important moment in equality in employment and the introduction of mandatory reporting of gender pay gap shows a continuing endeavour by governments to work towards equality in the UK, particularly in employment.


[1] https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/what-are-human-rights/history-human-rights-britain

[2] https://www.equalrightstrust.org/ertdocumentbank/bob%20hepple.pdf

[3]https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/genderpaygapintheuk/2018

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