'Whistleblowers' to get protection

ALL employees are to be given legal protection against victimisation if they complain about health and safety issues at work, Michael Forsyth, Employment minister, said yesterday.

Legislation is to be introduced in the autumn and will enable 'whistleblowers' to claim unfair dismissal if they are sacked because they passed on information about safety. They will also be given the right to a hearing at industrial tribunal if penalised by, for example, lack of promotion, as a result of raising safety fears.

Mr Forsyth, who made the announcement on a visit to a North Sea oil installation, said workers would be protected if they walked off the job because of 'serious and imminent danger'. Currently they risk dismissal for an unlawful unofficial strike if they take any action without a ballot.

'Victimisation of workers who raise safety issues is totally unacceptable,' Mr Forsyth said.

The new law is intended to apply to all workers, regardless of service. Many part-time employees and those with less than two years' service are excluded from the right to claim unfair dismissal.

Offshore workers were given protection against victimisation earlier this year after recommendations of the Cullen inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster. John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, welcomed the move: 'It is an important extension of workers' rights on health and safety. I hope it is the beginning of a conversion.'

Nigel Harris, chief health and safety officer of the Amalgamated Engineering, Electrical Union, said the legislation had been overdue. 'Hundreds of our members have been victimised and sacked for standing up for their health and safety on the shop floor. This deserves to be a thing of the past,' he said. Exact definitions of 'serious and imminent' danger may be difficult to pin down but unions will be pressing for as wide an interpretation as possible.

Many employers, including British Rail and most private companies, have rules that prevent employees talking to the press. It is not known whether public disclosure of unsafe practises is to be covered by the legislation.

Cohse, the health service union, says a study of whistleblowers shows that most in private industry faced the sack while up to half in the public sector had also been dismissed.

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