One of the biggest problems workers face is a lack of awareness about what our legal rights are. If we don’t know what we’re entitled to, it may mean we are missing out on something. This guide outlines some of your basic rights. It’s not a comprehensive list, but we hope it helps!

Some rights at work depend on your employment status, and some depend on how long you’ve been working in a given workplace, but these are the rights which all workers are entitled to from their first day of employment.

Important for international students

Most Tier 4 students may work, even if you are limited to doing a course-related work placement.

Work rights are a condition of your Tier 4 immigration permission (leave). This means it is very important that you are clear about what you may and may not do.

You can find more information on Tier 4 conditions for work from UKCISA or you can check UCL's Immigration and Visa advice page.

Contract of Employment

This is the legal agreement between the employee and the employer; there is no requirement for this to be in writing. The letter from the employer offering a job will create the contract. A Job Description may be added to the contract to give a clearer picture of what you are required to do.

Terms of the Contract

The employer must give each employee a written statement describing the main terms and conditions of the employment. This must happen within two months of the job starting.

The written terms will tell you about: sick pay, holidays, dismissal and grievance procedures, and the amount of pay. Sometimes the employer will give you a staff handbook in addition to the contract and terms of employment.

Zero-hours Contracts

Zero-hours contracts are also known as casual contracts. Zero-hours contracts are usually for ‘piece work’ or ‘on call’ work (for example for interpreters). This means:

  • you are on call to work when the employer needs you
  • your employer does not have to give you work
  • you do not have to do work when you are asked to by your employer

Zero-hours workers are entitled to statutory annual leave and the National Minimum Wage in the same way as regular workers. Employers are responsible for the health and safety of staff on zero-hours contracts.

Employers cannot do anything to stop a zero-hours worker from getting work elsewhere if they wish to. The law says you can ignore a clause in your contract if it bans you from:

  • looking for work
  • accepting work from another employer


You are entitled to be told, in writing, how much you will be paid and when your wages will be paid. The hourly rate for the minimum wage depends on your age and whether you’re an apprentice. You must be at least school leaving age to get the National Minimum Wage, or you must be aged 23 or over to get the National Living Wage (the minimum wage still applies to workers aged 22 and under).

Here are the current rates as of April 2022:

  • £9.50 – workers aged 23 and over
  • £9.18 – 21-22 year-old rate
  • £6.83 – 18-20 year-old rate
  • £4.81 – under 18 rate
  • £4.81 – apprentice rate, for apprentices under 19 or 19 over and in the first year of their apprenticeship

You can check current and past National Minimum and National Living Rates.

London Living Wage

The living wage is calculated annually by the Resolution Foundation and overseen by the Living Wage Commission. It is calculated as the minimum amount required for a worker to meet their basic needs. Many London universities have committed to paying all their workers the London Living Wage.

The London Living Wage (LLW) is £11.95 per hour (and £10.90 for the rest of the UK).

Income Tax and National Insurance

If you do any form of paid work in the UK, your pay will be subject to the normal Income Tax and National Insurance rules. The Income Tax and National Insurance year runs from 6th April until 5th April of the next year. Income Tax is sometimes known as PAYE.

Although the rules are complex a key point is that if your monthly earnings are below a certain level you will not pay National Insurance and if your monthly earnings are below a certain level you will not pay Income Tax.

For further information, please see the Citizens Advice website or the website on Income Tax and National Insurance.

Leave: holiday, sick, maternity and paternity

Almost all workers are entitled to at least 5.6 weeks paid leave per year (which is 28 days if you work five days a week). This includes agency workers, workers with irregular hours and workers on zero-hours contracts. Any employment contract should set out leave entitlements. If it doesn’t, then 5.6 weeks must be given (which can include public holidays).

If you are unsure of how much leave you are entitled to, use this tool to calculate it.

You are entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) if you normally earn over £123 per week and have been ill for at least 4 days in a row (including non-working days). The days you’re off sick when you normally would have worked are called ‘qualifying days’ and you can expect to receive SSP for all but the first 3 ‘qualifying days’ (which are known as ‘waiting days’). Statutory sick pay is currently £99.35 per week, and it is paid by your employer for us to 28 weeks.

If you become pregnant and choose to become a parent, you will be entitled to 26 weeks paid maternity leave and 26 weeks unpaid leave regardless of how long you have worked at the company, provided you give you employer notice of your due date and when you wish to start your leave (this must be at least 15 weeks before the due date, known as the ‘qualifying week’).

To receive statutory maternity (SMP) pay you must be earning over £123 per week and you have been working continuously for that employer for over 26 weeks by the ‘qualifying week’). SMP is paid for up to 39 weeks. You get 90% of your average weekly earnings for the first 6 weeks, then £156.66 or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.

Maternity Allowance is usually paid to you if you don’t qualify for SMP. The amount you get depends on your eligibility.

When you take time off because your partner is having a baby, adopting a child or having a baby through a surrogacy arrangement you may be eligible for one to two weeks paternity leave, paternity pay and shared parental leave and pay. This applies if you are the father of the baby, the husband or partner of the mother/adopter (including same-sex partners), the child’s adopter or the intended parent (if having a baby through surrogacy). The statutory weekly rate of paternity pay is £156.66, or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower).

Hours & breaks

You cannot be made to work more than 48 hours in a single week. This law is sometimes called the ‘working time directive’ or ‘working time regulations’. You can choose to work more by opting out of the 48-hour week.

You also are entitled to:

  • a rest break of at least 20 minutes for every 6 hours of continuous work during a single shift (such as a tea break or a lunch break).
  • at least 11 hours’ rest in each 24-hour period.
  • an uninterrupted 24 hours without any work each week or an uninterrupted 48 hours without any work each fortnight.

Equality and Diversity

Workers are also covered by equality legislation. Equality law applies regardless of the size of the organisation, the number of employees or the type of the work. Under the Equality Act 2010 it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of certain ‘protected characteristics’, which are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and Civil Partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion and belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation

Discrimination can come in one of the following forms:

  • direct discrimination - treating someone with a protected characteristic less favourably than others
  • indirect discrimination - putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage
  • harassment - unwanted behaviour linked to a protected characteristic that violates someone’s dignity or creates an offensive environment for them
  • victimisation - treating someone unfairly because they’ve complained about discrimination or harassment

If you feel you have been discriminated against, you can complain directly to the person/organisation, use someone else to help you resolve it (known as ‘mediation’ or alternative dispute resolution’) or make a claim in a court or tribunal.

Representation at Work

In the university you are represented by the students’ union; in the work place you are represented by trade unions. There are a number of different trade unions to represent people who work in different industries or sectors. Trade unions are democratic, with elected local branches and national representatives. Trade Unions can support you if you are facing any problems with your employment and they campaign to protect and increase your conditions and benefits at work.

More information about joining a trade union can be found here, along with a list of trade unions compiled by the Certification Officer (the independent organisation responsible for the legal regulation of unions).

Relevant Organisations

The following is a list of those organisations you may have contact with in connection with your employment in the UK.

This is a large government department that deals with National Insurance numbers and contributions, state pensions and a wide range of welfare benefits.

The DWP uses the name Job Centre Plus for some of its offices. It was previously known as the Benefits Agency, or Social Security office.

This is a large government department that deals with all forms of taxation.

This is part of the court system and deals with certain employment complaints such as unfair dismissal, discrimination and grievances.

This is the government department that deals with immigration issues, but is involved in preventing illegal working.

Local Authority or Council

These are local government departments that deal with issues such as health & safety, food hygiene, and child protection.

This is a government department that deals with major health and safety issues.

For certain types of work, your employer may require you to obtain a disclosure from the DBS. This will provide information about you that will help the employer decide if you are a suitable person.

The types of work include working with children, working with vulnerable adults, and certain jobs where a degree of trust is necessary.

Useful links