The Asda staff contracts ruling

Chris BoyleA high profile court case means businesses can now enforce variations of staff contracts, even against the wishes of workers.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled in the high profile case of Bateman v Asda Stores Ltd, which could have wide-reaching effects on the business community.

The supermarket had wanted to harmonise its employees’ terms and conditions of employment, and whilst thousands of staff agreed, thousands of other staff refused and were transferred to the new conditions involuntarily. About 700 of these staff then brought tribunal claims against the supermarket giant.

Asda’s argument was that they were entitled to do this, as the staff handbook set out in black and white that Asda ‘reserved the right to review, revise, amend or replace the contents of this handbook, and introduce new policies from time to time reflecting the changing needs of the business.’

However, the tribunal held that employers can reserve the right to make such unilateral changes without consent of staff, as long as they are properly implemented. It ruled that even when contained in a company handbook an employer can make changes to contractual terms such as rates of pay and working hours.

Workers then appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and lost their case. This decision is an important one, and means employers can rely on a contractual right to alter terms and conditions of employment in line with business needs.

However, employers should still be aware that they have an obligation to act reasonably and consult with employees well in advance of implementing any changes.

Ruling on the case, Silber J said, "There are two separate but important rights given to Asda in paragraph C of the Colleague Handbook...the first is to review etc the content of the Handbook and the second right is to introduce new policies.”

Chris Boyle, head of employment at Napthens solicitors.