Know Your Rights

How to change things in your workplace

Useful contacts and further resources



Students Guide to Rights at Work 3rd Edition, May 2015. The information in this booklet is accurate at the time of publishing. For any changes in legislation, check



Over the past decade, the number of students undertaking paid employment during term-time rose by more than 54%. Most of us took jobs in the retail or hospitality sectors – in bars, high-street shops, restaurants, and hotels – where low pay, long hours, and casual exploitation are common. Graduating students also face challenges with the number of new graduates employed in low-paid, “unskilled” or “semi-skilled” jobs doubling in the past 5 years.


This guide aims to give you the basic information about the rights you have in work, from pay to hours, health and safety to equality legislation. It also has information on how to go about changing your workplace and making your conditions and life at work better including examples of where workers have organised together to win improvements in their workplace.


Workers hold a unique power in society: as workers we are able to change not just the workplace but our communities and wider society as well. Take a look through this guide and make sure that you know your rights at work and don’t be afraid to fight for change in your workplace, for you and everyone you work with.



Know your rights


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 makes it easier for our bosses to ignore our rights and get away with illegal practises in the workplace.


This guide outlines some of your basic rights. It’s not a comprehensive list, but should help you stand on firmer ground if you want to challenge management malpractice in the workplace.


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:



You are entitled to be told, in writing, how much you will be paid and when your wages will be paid. All workers are entitled to the national minimum wage. Here are the current and future rates:


£6.95 – workers aged 21 and over 

£5.55 – 18-20 year-old rate

£4.00 – 16-17 year-old rate

£3.40 – apprentice rate, for apprentices under 19 or 19 over and in the first year of their apprenticeship


As you can see, there’s inbuilt age discrimination in the minimum wage as a 20 year-old worker could legally be paid over £1/hour less than a 21 year-old worker for doing the same job.

London Living Wage


The living wage is calculated annually, as the minimum amount required for a worker to meet their basic needs. Currently the London Living Wage (LLW) is £9.15 per hour (and £7.85 for the rest of the UK). Many London universities have committed to paying all their workers the London Living Wage.


At Senate House library, outsourced cleaners (those who are employed by an external company rather than by the University of London directly) have organised themselves to fight for the LLW. The campaign began in July 2011 and in less than a year the workers compelled the University to start paying the hourly LLW, using creative demonstrations and wildcat (unofficial and spontaneous) strikes. But at Senate House the struggle continues. The largely Spanish-speaking workers are now organising to win tres cosas (three things): the same sick pay rates, pensions and amount of holiday as that of workers directly employed by the University. Find out more about the tres cosas upcoming summer of action here: .


What about Interns? In this economic climate, many graduates have struggled to embark on the careers they want, and instead resort to working for free as interns in order to gain workplace experience. Yet if you have set hours, perform specific duties and contribute value to an organisation, you are legally considered a worker, regardless of your job title. And all workers are entitled to the minimum wage. Despite this a culture of unpaid internships persists.  


But is there anything interns can do to challenge it? Campaigning organisation Intern Aware ( have helped interns claim back the wages they are rightfully owed. Keri Hudson won back £1,025 (five weeks minimum wage pay plus holiday) after taking the company where she had interned to court.   Check out UCLU’s campaign against unpaid internships




Leave: sick, holiday and m/paternity pay

You are entitled to at least 5.6 weeks paid leave per year (which is 28 days if you work five days a week). Any employment contract should set out leave entitlements. If it doesn’t, then 5.6 weeks must be given (which can include public holidays).


You are entitled to statutory sick pay if you normally earn over £112 per week and have been ill for at least 4 days in a row (including non-working days). 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 (15 weeks before the due date). To receive statutory maternity pay  you must be earning over £112 per week and you have been working continuously for over 26 weeks by the time the baby is 15 weeks from being due. Fathers/ male partners can receive one to two weeks paid paternity leave, following the same conditions. You can also share your leave with your parent if you are both eligible for leave.


Hours & breaks

The European Working Time Directive provides all workers with the following rights. You cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours in a single week; your boss can ask you to work more than this, but this request must be made in writing and in advance

You also are entitled to:

  • a rest break of at least 20 minutes for every six hours of continuous work during a single shift.
  • at least 11 hours’ rest in each 24-hour period.

Where did the eight hour day come from?

The campaign for the eight-hour day was a central struggle for the nineteenth century trade union movement internationally. In the US, on May 1st 1886 40,000 striking workers assembled in Haymarket Square, Chicago, demanding the eight-hour day. They were fired upon and four of the trade union organisers were later executed. International Workers Day, which celebrates the achievements of the international labour movement is largely thought to be held on May 1st in order to commemorated this event.  

Meanwhile in Beckton, East London, in 1889, the gas workers were the first trade to successfully strike for the eight-hour day, having previously worked 12-hour shifts.



Health & safety

Globally, more people die each year in work than in war. For this reason, Health & Safety law requires that employers have a responsibility to ensure that the workplace is safe. The law states that they must do “whatever is reasonably practicable” to ensure workplace safety. That means that, if you’re working as a cleaner using potentially dangerous bleaches and your employer has not given you proper protective gloves, your boss is acting illegally.


You are entitled to:

  • see your workplace’s written health and safety policy (for all workplaces with more than 5 employees)
  • see and have access to a properly-conducted risk assessment of your workplaces. This must outline all the health and safety risks associated with the workplace itself and with the work. Your employer has a responsibility to carry this risk assessment out.


You have the ultimate right to refuse to work if you do not think your boss is fulfilling their responsibilities to ensure safe working conditions.


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 the protected characteristics (features which it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of) are:

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

The Equality Act 2010 can be found on

From car seats to glass ceilings

The UK has had equal pay legislation in force since the 1970s which makes it illegal to treat workers differently in terms of pay and conditions because of their gender. The Equal Pay Act 1970 was a major victory for the women’s and labour movements, and much of the momentum behind it came from the Ford Motor Company strike, as portrayed in the 2010 film Made in Dagenham. Women workers in the Dagenham factory who manufactured car seat covers held a three-week walk-out to protest the discrepancies between their wages and those of their male colleagues.


Despite the legislation, significant differences between the average wages of men and women remain today. According to research by the Fawcett Society, women on average earn 18% less than men. This can be attributed to the number of women who work part-time (as part-time positions often have lower equivalent wages and fewer promotion opportunities than full-time roles), the low economic value placed on roles traditionally associated with women (such as cleaning and caring) and the lack of flexibility on the part of employers for women who want to balance their career with motherhood. In 2012, November 7th was announced as Equal Pay Day, as it marks the stage in the year at which women begin to work for nothing compared to men, if the pay gap is averaged across the year.  


Disability – reasonable adjustments: There are specific rights for Disabled workers. If you are Disabled your employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to your work place; for example providing you with a special piece of equipment to help you do the job.



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.

A list of trade unions and useful resources is available at the end of the booklet.


Trade Unions: strength in numbers

Unlike a students’ union where you are automatically a member, you have to pay to join a trade union but don’t let that put you off joining. When facing redundancy or discrimination at work trade union support is worth far more then the small amount you pay to join. Also many trade unions offer a student rate which is far cheaper than the usual membership fee.

On average trade union members earn 12.5% more than non-members in some sectors, and receive three times more from employment tribunals when their unfair dismissal case is backed by their union.

The more people in the workplace that are members of the trade union, the more power the trade union and you have at work.  Bosses ignore workers’ rights when they feel confident that workers won’t stand up to them. Having these legal rights is important, but if we don’t stand up for them then they’re only words on a page. Remember; you have the right to join a trade union and are not legally allowed to be sacked for joining one.

Agency workers also have the right to join unions. And if you have been in continuous employment at a workplace through an agency for at least 12 weeks you are entitled to the same terms and conditions (e.g. hourly or weekly pay) as a worker who is directly employed at that workplace.











How to change things in your workplace: Workplace Organising 101


Workplace organising is about getting to know your colleagues and workplace and working together to change conditions where you work. It might mean challenging employers when they aren’t respecting your legal rights as a worker. Or it might be that your basic rights are being recognised, but you’d still like things to be better. You might feel that you and your colleagues deserve more than the minimum wage, or more control over which shifts you work, or a better area where you can take your breaks.


Beginning a campaign to organise your workplace can be a daunting task, especially if you feel like you’re the only person in the workplace who wants to stand up to the bosses or feels like there are any issues. The first thing to be aware of is that this almost certainly not the case. Almost everyone has some issues with how things are run in their workplace and how their managers treat them; a big part of being a workplace organiser is about finding out what the issues that unite lots of people in the workplace are, and finding ways to take them from low-level grumbling to things you can campaign around.



Step 1: Know your workplace: A good way of beginning to make change happen is to figure out what you already know about your workplace, and what you don’t. This can be done through ‘mapping’ your workplace: knowing who works where, what times shifts start and finish, and what the different kinds of work that take place in your workplace are. Ideally you should be more in touch with what happens in your workplace than your management. For example, if you work in a big bar, club, or venue, the workforce includes bar staff, cleaners, glass collectors, security, tech staff, and possibly others. Are they all employed by the same body, or are some (cleaners, for example) employed by an outsourced contractor? When do they start and finish? Is there a break room or smoking hour where groups of workers congregate on their breaks or before/after shifts? You don’t have to know every minute detail about your workplace, but building up this kind of ‘map’ is really helpful for getting a picture of how the workplace runs.


Step 2: Find common ground: Another key aspect of organising in your workplace is identifying issues that people care about. Even if an issue seems really ‘small’, if people feel strongly about it and feel that it’s an expression of mistreatment by management, it’s worth campaigning around. Winning the ‘little’ battles gives workers confidence to fight the bigger ones. The Unite union in New Zealand ran a big campaign in cinemas to win back workers’ complimentary tickets that management had taken away.


To find out what your colleagues care about or are concerned about, get talking to them. Or maybe try producing a workplace newsletter or bulletin in order to initiate some collective discussion about what the issues in your workplace are.


3: Choose winnable targets: The issues you campaign around should be clear and winnable. ‘Better pay’ may not be the best campaign focus, as it’s quite vague and general. If pay is the main issue that people want to organise around, choose a clear demand that people feel they can win. You might consider fighting for the London Living Wage (currently £9.15/hour). The point is not to be prescriptive or dogmatic but to fight around the issues that people feel strongest about.


As your campaign builds you’ll need to consider other tactics – petitions, sticker days (where everyone wears union stickers or stickers with a slogan/message about your issue), or direct action, such as strikes.


Although you might start a campaign “on your own”, or with just one or two others, don’t think you have to be some kind of superhero or martyr to win it. Campaigns run in this way are not sustainable. The point of workplace organising is to help all workers in your workplace realise their potential power, so you need to make your campaigns accessible and democratic. Hold regular meetings (outside of work time where necessary) to give people the opportunity to discuss the campaign and take ownership over its direction.


You can’t organise alone. Join a trade union as soon as you get a job, even if you’re only planning on staying in the job for a short time, and encourage everyone involved in your campaign to join as soon as possible too. Trade union recruitment shouldn’t be the main aim of your campaign but it is essential. Without unionisation, you are much less protected. In a union, you have access to resources, support networks, and activist experience to help your campaign grow and win. For more information on which trade union you’d be eligible to join, see the key contacts at the back of the booklet.


Workplace organising isn’t easy, and it’s not about “helping” poor, exploited workers as if they were charity cases. It’s based on the belief that we should have a say in how our workplaces are run – because, without us (the workers), they can’t run.


Student workers organising at Royal Holloway


In 2011 and 2012, activists – including student bar workers – at Royal Holloway University ran a student-worker organising campaign. Daniel Lemberger Cooper, then President of Royal Holloway Students Union (2011-2012) and now ULU Vice President (2012-2014), tells the story.


Our campaign at Royal Holloway began as an awareness-raising campaign about rights at work. We put out posters and leaflets around campus which focused on basic rights around pay, terms and conditions, health and safety, and made the basic case for trade unionism.


We held ‘know your rights’ meetings, which we targeted both at university staff and campus students. We established a relationship with the existing GMB branch on campus and found out shift-change times for cleaners, porters and grounds staff so we were able to leaflet them.


We held a meeting for student workers employed by the Students’ Union in November 2011 aimed at discussing what people’s issues were. About 40 people came, and there was a lot of really good discussion as well as a lot of enthusiasm to start campaigning around the issues facing working students.


Workers themselves ran the meeting, and decided to organise an informal reps’ structure with elected reps for each section of the workforce (bar staff, catering, tech, etc.). The idea was that those reps would be points-of-contact for people to go to with concerns or issues at work, but also make the case for trade unionism and organisation amongst the wider student workforce.


The meeting also produced a list of demands based on what people felt the key issues were. The three focuses agreed upon were breaks, pay and representation.


The demand around breaks was simply for people to be able to take the breaks they were legally entitled to, which is an endemic problem in a lot of service and retail sector workplaces. The pay demand started off as a demand for a small increase but as the campaign has become more ambitious it’s shifted to demanding the London Living Wage for student workers. The demand for better representation started off by calling for an improved staff forum, but that’s since shifted onto demanding that the SU management recognises the GMB and begins to bargain collectively with the workforce.


The campaign has already won some real concessions. People are taking their breaks now, which is a big material improvement in people’s lives at work which wouldn’t have happened without our campaign. There’s also been a small degree of levelling-up of pay between different grades of workers at the SU, and we’re now beginning to lobby the university to fund a pay increase for SU staff to bring them all up to the London Living Wage. We’re also making progress on the issue of recognition and are attempting to go through processes necessary to win formal recognition.


We had to take a decision early on about how much to foreground the issue of joining the GMB. We decided that we wanted the focus of the campaign to be organising, rather than recruitment, so we decided not to make signing a membership form the first thing we asked people to do. A lot of the workers didn’t know what a trade union was, and many of those that did, didn’t feel it had any relevance to their lives. We had to build up basic level of consciousness and confidence around collective organisation before we could push the issue of trade union membership.


That’s not to say we avoided talking about it; we always had membership forms available at every meeting, but we wanted to run a campaign that was about helping workers self-organise to win change at work, rather than a campaign that was simply about recruiting people to the GMB. Around 25 workers have joined the union, which is a good start. What we’ve done at Royal Holloway has shown that the model can work.



Useful contacts and further information


Trade Unions:

GMB (general union, anyone can join) –


Unite (general union, anyone can join) –


Unison (public sector union; join if you are a nursing student or working in a campus job where Unison already organise) –


University and College Union (academic workers’ union; join if you are a PhD or postgraduate student also doing teaching/lecturing work) –


National Union of Teachers (teachers’ union; join if you are a PGCE student) –


USDAW (shop workers union) -


Industrial Workers of the World (radical industrial union) –


Solidarity Federation (SolFed) (local collective workers’ self-organising)


Bloomsbury Fightback (student-worker direct action campaign group active on Bloomsbury campuses) -




Student Unions:


UCLU Work Campaign: [email protected]


 Useful resources:


















This booklet was produced by UCLU in 2015 as part of our work campaign ( The campaign included a working-class film screening, a workshop on cooperatives, and a survey of UCL students' working conditions which has laid the groundwork for further campaigning for student workers. This booklet is based on a guide created by ULU in 2012.