The government’s naming and shaming exercise this year has seen several organisations penalised for requiring employees earning the national minimum wage (NMW) to front the cost of their own uniforms. This has understandably created some confusion amongst employers as to the correct protocol when it comes to uniforms in the workplace.
As a general rule, employers can require their employees to pay for their uniforms, excluding personal protective equipment, providing there is a contractual provision in place. It is advisable to insert a clause within any contract of employment which outlines the type of uniform required and explicitly state if the employee is expected to purchase this.
You may require your employees to pay for their own uniform, however as highlighted by recent HMRC enforcement action, extra care should be taken if you pay your employees in question at the rate of the current minimum wage appropriate to their age, or only slightly higher.
Employers that require a uniform to be worn and demand the respective employee to pay for it are prevented from doing so if this deduction takes the employees’ wages below NMW.
Even those who stipulate what their employees must wear to work but do not consider it a ‘uniform’ in the traditional sense still risk falling foul of the minimum wage requirements.
Using the example of casual dining chain Wagamama, who required staff earning the NMW rate to wear either casual black jeans or a black skirt they were determined to require employees to wear a “uniform”.
According to HMRC in this type of situation, where the cost of purchasing the uniform would take the employees’ wages below NMW, the employer is legally required to reimburse the employee enough funds to ensure NMW requirements are met.
However, where employers don’t have a uniform requirement but, instead, operate a dress code this avoids the risk of falling foul of pay laws. For example, many office-based businesses ask that their employees wear “smart workwear”.
According to HMRC, these employers may reasonably expect employees on NMW to purchase these items without the need to reimburse any funds, as this request is considerably less specific than Wagamama’s requirement to wear black jeans.
Whilst you are able to ask your employees to pay for their uniforms, you should ensure the necessary wording is included in any workplace policy on the matter and consider if the cost of this uniform will take their wages below NMW.
Employers are strongly advised to conduct an internal review into their procedures as a precaution given the recent actions of HMRC, whilst ensuring the necessary payroll changes are made ahead of April’s minimum wage increases.
Kate Palmer is associate director at Peninsula HR
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