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LONDON -- Employers are facing more and more compensation claims for stress at work, repetitive strain injury and discrimination, according to a survey published this month by the Trades Union Congress, the London-based organization representing U.K. labor unions.
The survey of the TUC's legal services for 1997 showed that unions won L301 million ($503.5 million) in compensation for members last year, taking their total compensation won for workplace injuries and occupational illness to L1.5 billion ($2.5 billion) during the past five years.
Legal services offered by trade unions have expanded significantly in recent years as a means of recruiting and retaining members, the survey noted, pointing out that legal services were rated the second most important union activity by members after fighting for better pay and conditions.
The 1998 survey is based on responses from 39 unions, representing 96% of union membership in the United Kingdom, for the period January to December 1997.
Stress cases continued to increase, topping the list for the fourth consecutive year, with 22% of unions reporting an increase in stress cases among members. Unions have about 460 stress cases in progress, the TUC survey states.
"Stress has been a difficult area in law, but with more employees coming forward with their cases, unions are increasingly taking them on," the survey states, adding, "however, the vast majority are still settled before they come to court."
Among the landmark settlements made last year was an out-of-court settlement of L25,000 ($41,820) paid to the widow of a trade union member. The settlement, in a suit charging that the worker had been driven to suicide by stress, was the first such settlement for a suicide caused by workplace stress, according to the TUC.
Cases of repetitive strain injury also are on the increase, the survey found.
"RSI last year faced several tests in the courts and as a result is becoming better established as a recognized condition," the survey pointed out. However, the survey added that recent high-profile cases have "failed to bring clarity to the legal controversy surrounding RSI."
Discrimination cases, on the grounds of gender, race and disability, also increased markedly last year. A total of 3,346 cases were taken to employment tribunal by unions last year, of which some 8% -- nearly 300 -- related to discrimination. The highest award secured at an employment tribunal during 1997 was L234,362 ($392,041) for a gender discrimination case.
Unions are taking on more cases of discrimination due to chronic conditions such as epilepsy, asthma and diabetes.
"These conditions, when controlled, should not affect a person's ability to do a job, a fact that some employers have been slow to recognize," the survey states.
Meanwhile, health problems and injuries sustained at work continue to make up the bulk of unions' legal work. In 1997, unions helped members to win L28.5 million ($47.7 million) in damages for occupational disease, including cases involving upper limb disorders, chronic conditions caused by dangerous substances such as organophosphates and asbestos, and accidents at work.
Trade unions also are expanding their legal services beyond help at work, offering members and their families legal help lines for all legal matters, free will writing services, and help and advice in cases of medical negligence.
Copies of the report are available for L10 from the Trades Union Congress, Congress House, Great Russell St., London WC1B 3LS United Kingdom; 44-171-467-1294