The national minimum wage protects workers in the UK by guaranteeing them a minimum hourly rate. Employees can resign and claim constructive dismissal in response to a serious breach of contract by their employer. So, if an employee is unaware of their rights, can they still argue constructive dismissal when an employer fails to pay them the minimum wage? According to a recent Court of Appeal case, the answer is yes.
Facts of the case
In Mruke v Khan, Ms Mruke was an illiterate domestic worker from Tanzania employed by Mrs Khan to work in her London home. Ms Mruke was paid just 33 pence per hour for her work and subjected to abusive treatment, including working 18-hour days, not being allowed to contact her family and having to sleep on the floor.
Ms Mruke brought a claim of constructive unfair dismissal for her employer’s failure to pay her the minimum wage. However, the employment tribunal (ET) found that she was not aware of her right to receive the minimum wage, and therefore she could not have resigned for that breach of contract.
The Court of Appeal’s decision
According to the Court of Appeal, the ET was wrong to base its decision on Ms Mruke’s ignorance of her rights. The Court decided that paying a pittance like 33 pence per hour constituted such an egregious breach of the law that it was obvious Ms Mruke had resigned because of that breach.
Even though she had been unaware of her right to receive the minimum wage, the failure to pay her the national minimum still amounted to a repudiatory breach of contract. The claim of constructive unfair dismissal was therefore successful.
Race discrimination claim fails
Separately, the Court dismissed claims that Ms Mruke had been the victim of racial discrimination. It agreed that she had been treated poorly because of her socio-economic circumstances, which is not the same as direct race discrimination.
What makes this decision interesting is the notion of “obviousness” in terms of egregious breach of employment law. The decision may well pave the way for other similar cases that raise questions of obviousness.