Staff uniforms: the minimum wage minefield

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You wouldn’t think something as simple as a uniform could be a potential danger to employers. But uniforms caused restaurant chain Wagamama to repay £133,212 to 2,630 of its workers. Why? Because they hadn’t factored uniform costs into their wage calculations (or so they said). As a result, they ended up on the government’s name-and-shame list of companies who failed to pay the minimum wage. Over the past few years, uniforms have been the source of other workplace disputes, too. So what does the law say? Let’s start with the reason Wagamama got into trouble. When employees need to buy their uniform from you, you can deduct the cost from their pay. But this can’t take their wages below the national minimum wage (NMW) or the national living wage (NLW), depending on which one applies. If you provide free uniforms, or your staff choose to buy extra items with their own money, this doesn’t affect their wages. But what if…

  • What if my employee buys a second branded t-shirt from me, even though I didn’t ask her to? If you deduct the cost of a second t-shirt from her pay, this still mustn’t take her wage below the legal minimum.
  • What if I require my employees to wear particular clothing, like black trousers and black shoes? The rule still applies—the cost of buying clothes from a shop mustn’t take workers’ wages below the minimum.
  • What about costs related to normal wear and tear? Again, the same rules stands—the cost of repairing the uniform mustn’t take workers’ wages below the minimum.
  • What if my employee damages, loses or fails to return his uniform? If it’s his fault, then you can charge him to replace or repair it, but only if you explained this in his contract. This deduction can take his pay below the minimum.

What else should you look out for? Uniforms are a great way to present a professional and consistent image to your customers. Or your employees might need to wear them to stay safe, as with hi-vis clothing. But because uniforms can cause disputes between you and your employees, you should be flexible in how you enforce the rules. Some of your employees might never meet customers. Do they really need to wear a uniform? A dress code may be more appropriate—this gives your staff more leeway in what they can wear. “You must wear smart business clothing” is less specific than, “You must wear black trousers and shoes.” You should also keep in mind the needs of certain groups. For example, a pregnant woman may find it uncomfortable or even impossible to wear her uniform in the latter stages of her pregnancy. Uniforms and religion Many cases end up in front of an employment tribunal because a company’s uniform policy or dress code clashes with an employee’s religion. When giving its verdict, the tribunal will look at how the employer applies their rules. If a company’s policies target a specific religion (either directly or indirectly), they’re likely to lose. This was the case when a popular high street clothing store didn’t accept a Muslim candidate’s application because her headscarf wasn’t ‘stylish’ enough, and their dress code banned ‘caps’. She accused them of discrimination. The court agreed, and slapped the company with a fine of £20,000. In another case, a nursery school in Essex noticed that a successful candidate’s jilbab—a full-length garment that some Muslim women wear—covered her shoes. They told her this would be a tripping hazard, and asked if she could wear a shorter one. She was offended by their request, so didn’t take the job. Instead, she accused the nursery of indirect discrimination. The employment tribunal ruled in favour of the nursery. Their rule that staff had to wear clothes of appropriate length didn’t just affect Muslims, but all staff regardless of their faith. What you should do next To avoid the embarrassment of ending up on that government list and having to fork out thousands in back pay, make sure that your uniform costs aren’t taking staff wages below the legal minimum. And to avoid employment tribunals, review your uniform policy to make sure it’s as flexible as possible.

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