Employment lawyer shares advice for employers facing employee requests to join the Glasgow Climate Strike protest

Ann Frances Cooney, an employment law partner at DWF leading the Scottish employment law practice

Ann Frances Cooney, an employment law partner at DWF leading the Scottish employment law practice, shares advice for employers on their obligations relating to employee plans to join the Glasgow Climate Strike protest.

She said: “As Glasgow gets ready to host the COP 26 climate change conference, plans are in place for workers, students and school children to join a Climate Strike on 5th November. Greta Thunberg has confirmed she will join protestors on a march through the city which will no doubt boost the awareness and increase the numbers likely to join the rally.

“We only have to cast our minds back to Autumn 2019 to remember the huge numbers of protestors who turned out in support across cities in the UK (including Glasgow) and across the globe. There were similar calls for workers to walk out of their workplaces to support the strikes and many did. Scenes of disruption caused by Extinction Rebellion protestors climbing on top of tube trains during rush hour and blocking roads around London in particular were well publicised.

“Given the publicity and general strength of feeling, it is likely that there will again be large scale protests locally and nationally. How could this impact employers and what should employers do to prepare?

“It is vital that employers plan for staff wanting to make their voices heard by ‘going on strike’ for the day to join the protests. Without a clear strategy, employers risk being taken by surprise and ill-prepared managers could fall into the trap of making decisions – possibly the wrong decisions – under pressure.

“Legally speaking, if employees plan to strike to join a protest, the action is unlikely to be classed as a trade dispute and may not have the proper support of a trade union. This means that the legislation protecting strikers from dismissal or other sanctions won’t apply leaving employers with discretion to take disciplinary action including employment termination.

“However ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ and employers may want to think carefully before sanctioning staff.    

“For example, there could be a risk of discrimination. There is case law which makes clear that climate change can be considered a philosophical belief under discrimination legislation. Under the Equality Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of their religion or belief, and that means employers need to be careful about disciplining staff who take part in climate change protests.

“In terms of ESG more generally, there are tried and tested benefits to promoting ESG within the workplace. For example, ESG performance has been linked to employee satisfaction and by helping build the employer’s brand, can help with recruitment and retention. Good ESG credentials are increasingly cited as important factors amongst new recruits and especially younger age groups such as Gen Zs and Millennials so could help with the so-called “war on talent”.

“On a wider scale, an employer who hits the headlines for sacking staff who participate in the action or ordering staff not to protest, could face reputational damage. This could be harmful, not only in the eyes of its workforce but from the organisation’s stakeholders and customers too.

“The best advice therefore, is where possible, employers should try to find some middle ground with employees who want to make their voices heard around COP26 in particular. If someone wants time off to protest, consider whether the request can be granted and be reasonable about it.”

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