Ignorance of employment rights and constructive dismissal
A woman who was paid 33 pence per hour as a domestic worker and was unaware of her right to the national minimum wage has been successful in her claim for constructive unfair dismissal under the Employment Rights Act 1996.
A woman who was paid 33 pence per hour as a domestic worker and was unaware of her right to the national minimum wage has been successful in her claim for constructive unfair dismissal under the Employment Rights Act 1996. Ms Mruke was uneducated and illiterate. She was from Tanzania and spoke no English. Ms Mruke argued that her employer Ms Khan had breached her contract of employment by failing to pay her the national minimum wage.
Ms Mruke was unsuccessful at the first two stages of her claim. The employment tribunal agreed that failure to pay the national minimum wage could amount to a breach of contract by Ms Khan which would have entitled Ms Mruke to resign and claim constructive dismissal. However, the tribunal decided against her because she had been unaware of her right to be paid the national minimum wage and couldn’t show that she had resigned as a response to that breach. In her tribunal evidence (through an interpreter, as she spoke no English), Ms Mruke didn’t give any reasons at all for her resignation. She did however, say that she had stayed working there for 4 years because she had no money and nowhere else to go.
The EAT dismissed Ms Mruke’s appeal, stating that it would be an error of law to require her to have known about her statutory rights before she could be said to have resigned in response to the breach of the implied term that she would receive the minimum wage. However, she was still required to show that she had resigned in response to a repudiatory breach.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the EAT that she was not required to show knowledge of her minimum wage rights, but disagreed with its assessment of knowledge of rights, and ruled that Ms Mruke had been constructively dismissed. The Court said that Ms Mruke did not have to show that she knew of her right to the minimum wage. It was important that social legislation such as the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 should be interpreted in such a way as to protect workers. Some employees could be exploited exactly because they were illiterate or uneducated. To rely on that person’s ignorance of their rights as meaning that they could not have resigned in response to what was a repudiatory breach of contract amounted to an error of law. The Court ruled that there had been an egregious breach of Ms Mruke’s contract of employment given the extremely low pay. Given the circumstances it was obvious that she had resigned in response to it. The tribunal’s decision to the contrary was perverse.