Thousands of employers may be unwittingly breaking the law by failing to provide a written contract for staff, warns the British Grooms Association (BGA).

The warning comes after an employment tribunal awarded £3,357 to a groom whose employer failed to state clearly her terms of employment.

Terri Cowley, 22, worked as a groom for young horse producer Tim Brown from January to August 2007.

A disagreement over holiday pay and notice resulted in an employment tribunal in Leicester last February.

Mr Brown was ordered to pay compensation for unpaid holiday, underpayment of wages, failure to comply with statutory procedures or to provide written particulars
of employment.

Before Miss Cowley started work neither side discussed salary, holiday pay nor notice.

Miss Cowley said: “We talked about hours during the interview — but these got longer when he was competing, and when we worked my hourly rate out for the tribunal, it came to £3.”

But Mr Brown said the case had been “an expensive learning curve”, and argued that horses are a “24/7” job and competitions sometimes run from dawn to dusk. He said it opened up questions about how grooms should be paid.

“Employers must put a market value on accommodation, use of vehicles, lessons, stabling and employees’ horses, so everyone — employees and employers — are fully aware of the whole package,” he said. “I hope others in the industry can learn from this and take note that there are employment laws we all must adhere to.”

“This case is a prime example of why people need a contract,” said Lucy Katan of the BGA, which undertook research on this issue in 2003.

“In that survey only three out of 50 grooms had a contract. But within two months of employment, staff must by law have a written statement of the main terms of employment.

“There has to be leniency in the job, but there can also be true exploitation,” she said. “We’d never tell people how much to pay staff, but there does need to be a culture change — in racing, staff are being paid overtime now.”

She added that the BGA has “major plans” to expand its advice to employers. It has drawn up a draft statement of terms of employment which is free to download from www.britishgrooms.org.uk

This news story was first published in Horse & Hound (17 April, ’08)