Time off for trade union duties and activities
Employees who are members of a trade union that is recognised by their employer have a statutory right to take a reasonable amount of paid and unpaid time off for certain union duties and activities.
Paid time off for union duties
If you're an employee and an official, or an elected representative such as a shop steward or convenor of a trade union that's recognised by your employer, you can take reasonable paid time off to carry out some union duties. These include:
- negotiating terms and conditions of employment
- helping with disciplinary or grievance procedures on behalf of union members, which includes accompanying workers at disciplinary or grievance hearings)
- negotiating issues about union membership
- discussing issues that affect union members, such as redundancies or the sale of the business
- being trained for your union work
If you're a union learning representative, you have the right to take reasonable paid time off for this during working hours, as long as your union has given notice in writing to your employer that you're a learning representative and your union is recognised by your employer.
The duties for which a union learning representative can take paid time off are to:
- analyse learning or training needs
- provide information and to arrange or promote learning or training
- discuss learning or training with the employer
- train as a learning representative
You'll find a detailed list of examples of relevant trade union duties in the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) Code of Practice.
The rate you're paid for this time off is what you're normally paid. If your earnings vary, you should be paid according to your average hourly earnings.
Unpaid time off for trade union activities
Employees who are members of a recognised union are allowed to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off during the working day to take part in union activity or to talk to a union learning representative. You can take time off for:
- going to workplace meetings to talk about and vote on negotiations with your employer
- going to a meeting with a full-time union official to discuss issues relevant to the workplace
- voting in a union election
If you're a union official, you can also take unpaid time off to go to union conferences and meetings. This includes policy-making committees of the union.
Although, there's no statutory right to be paid for this time off, some employers make payments in some circumstances. Your contract of employment may explain whether you have the right to be paid.
As time off for union activities is not usually paid, meetings are often held during breaks such as lunchtime.
Although industrial action is a trade union activity there is no right to time off for it. However, union officials do have the right to time off to take part in negotiations to avoid industrial action.
'Reasonable' time off
It's important for union officials and representatives, and employers, to be reasonable in handling requests for time off for union duties and activities. There's no legal definition of 'reasonable time off'. You need to take into account the:
- type of employer
- need to keep production going
- importance of health and safety at work
- amount of time off you've already had
Those seeking time off for trade union duties and/ or activities should provide their employer with as much notice as possible and give details of the purpose of the time off and how much time off is required.
Options if you’re not allowed to take time off
If you are sacked for exercising your rights to take time off for union activities or duties it will be unfair. You can then make an unfair dismissal claim to an Industrial Tribunal.
You can also apply to the Industrial Tribunal for an interim relief order, and if upheld will result in a reinstatement/re-engagement order where the employee is paid their normal wages or salary until the full dismissal hearing. A claim for interim relief must be brought within 7 days of the dismissal. You should consult your full-time union official about interim relief.
If your employer won't let you take reasonable time off for union duties or activities, or if you are a trade union official or learning representative and your employer doesn't pay you for some or all of the time off, you have grounds for a complaint to an Industrial Tribunal.
Before taking the matter to an Industrial Tribunal try and sort out the problem by discussing the matter with your employer. You might also consider involving a full-time union officer or see if your employer will involve the LRA.
Complaining to an Industrial Tribunal should be a last resort. It's better to try to resolve disputes through discussion and conciliation.
Where you can get help
The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) and Advice NI offer free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues.