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They Want to Change My Contract

Sadly in such uncertain times many institutions will look to worsen the terms and conditions of the employment contract. This can range from cuts in sickness and absence benefits, changes hours worked, cuts to holiday entitlement or even fundemental changes to the work itself – often resulting in a pay cut.

However, you DO NOT have to automatically accept these changes to terms and conditions. Your contract cannot normally be changed without your acceptance. By acting collectively UCU members have successfully resisted such changes and there are good examples of this already here in the South West Region.

If you find yourself in this situation:

  • If you are a UCU member contact your local branch secretary
  • Offer to become involved
  • If you are NOT a UCU member join now
  • Get a copy of your contract and familiarise yourself with the terms and conditions
  • Do not sign a new contract or work in a way which implies acceptance of new terms
  • Do not allow your colleagues to accept as doing so will undermine your position
  • Speak to your colleagues about this information and persuade them to join you
  • Your branch may organise formal rejection

Remember if you accept – for example a change to sickness and absence entitlement thinking you will never need it – you will be undermining the position of your colleagues.You may be setting yourself up for further contract changes.

Contract Changes and the Law

Employers should never introduce contract changes without consulting either the union, other employee reps (if there is no recognised union) or the individual employee.

Contracts can only be changed lawfully:

  • where the contract allows for a change — for example, if there is a reasonable mobility clause allowing the employer to change the place of work;
  • if the parties agree to the change;
  • through collective bargaining; or
  • by terminating the existing contract by giving full contractual notice and simultaneously offering new terms. (NB – This can be an unfair dismissal).

If an employer insists on changing terms without agreement, this is a unilateral variation of contract and the employee may be able to pursue a claim for breach of contract or for unlawful deduction of wages. An agreement to a change of contract can either be express (for example if the employee verbally consents or signs a new contract) or implied by the employee’s conduct. For example, if an employer announces that the hours of work will change from a 9.30am start to a 9.00am start and the employees come in at 9,00am the next day and carries on coming in at 9.00am without objecting, this is an implied agreement to change their hours to a 9.00am start — even if they have not said “yes” or “no” to it.

It is important that employees are made aware that a failure to oppose a change could mean that they will be taken to have accepted it and may not be able to challenge it at a later date.

However, this is not necessarily the case if the proposed change does not take immediate effect:

In workplaces with a recognised union, contractual changes usually occur through collective bargaining.

Breach of contract

If me employee does not agree to proposed changes and the employer goes ahead and changes them unilaterally, this is generally a breach of contract. The employee can do a number of things in response:

  • accept the change;
  • refuse to work under the new terms, it is then up to the employer to decide what to do;
  • object to the new terms but carry on working under them while taking legal action;
  • I carry on working but treat themself as dismissed and claim unfair dismissal (only if there is a substantial difference in terms);
  • I resign and claim constructive dismissal (if there is a fundamental breach); or
  • I consider whether the change is valid under TUPE.

Employees who continue working following a breach of contract may be taken to have accepted the change and therefore waived their right to pursue a breach of contract claim. If they wish to challenge the breach, it is important for them to make it clear that they do not accept the changes and to act quickly in getting legal advice and in pursuing a claim. If they are not immediately aware that there has been a change, they should protest as soon as they become aware of it.

Forcing change by terminating contract and offering new (worse) terms

Increasingly, employers who fail to secure the consent of the workforce to a contract change are responding by giving notice to end the contracts of employment, while at the same time offering new (usually less favourable) terms and conditions. A large number of employers, especially local authorities, have adopted this course since the start of the economic downturn.

If an employer terminates the existing employment contract and offers new terms, this is not a breach of contract, as long as the employer gives adequate notice (either the statutory minimum or the amount stated in the contract, whichever is longer) (Kerry Foods v Lynch EAT/0032/05 ([2005] IRLR 680)). This is because by giving notice to end the contract, the employer is complying with the contract rather than breaking it. However, this will be a dismissal and employees in this situation can bring a claim for unfair dismissal, as long as they have enough service.

And Finally…

Contract Law is complex and you will need expert advice and support and to work collectively with your colleagues to get the best possible outcome. Both of these needs can best be met by joining a trade union. Join UCU here

Join other teaching unions here:

Information here is from “Law at Work” 2013, a booklet published by the LRD (Labour Research Department) ( ) for your copies.