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This is a somewhat similar question to Can an employer force you to wear a face mask?.

The location is also the same, the UK.

I'm a European citizen working in the UK. With the recent pandemic, my workplace has closed the office for an indefinite period of time and asked everyone to work from home, which I've been doing very effectively for the past two months.

Now that the overall situation is getting a little better I'm planning to go back to Europe to see my family, I'm worried about the health conditions of a close relative and I would like to be there to help if needed. The plan is to be there for a few weeks, some of holiday and some of remote work.

However, my company is notoriously strict when it comes to remote working, and I'm worried they might not approve of this decision. Can they forbid me to travel?

As a side note, I know that the answer to the question

Can my employer force me to do X?

is usually

It doesn't really matter, because they can always fire you.

So what I'm looking for here is whether they have any concrete legal basis to tell me that I can't do this.

EDIT One thing I forgot to mention is that most of my colleagues have already left their normal place of residence to go stay with their families (within the UK).

  • "It doesn't really matter, because they can always fire you." Is sometimes an answer due to at-will employment, usually in reference to the US. But it may also apply if f you're under probation in the UK. – Gregory Currie May 30 at 2:38
  • I've been with the company for a few years, so I'm not on probation anymore – yejep May 30 at 2:43
  • Have you read your employment contract? – Gregory Currie May 30 at 2:46
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    I found the title a bit misleading, it looks like you're trying to find out whether your employer will allow you to work remotely from a foreign country, not whether your employer is allowed to forbid you to travel. – Egor May 30 at 14:12
  • “They can fire you” is the answer to “can they force me”. If you want to travel to the continent and they don’t want you to, they can’t confiscate your car keys and/or passport or put guards in front of your house. The only way to force you is to refuse to pay you or to fire you - if your refusal is a legitimate reason for that. – gnasher729 May 31 at 9:58
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I would answer your question with no, but practically yes for what I believe you're asking to do.

What I interpreted from your question: You want to "work from home" away from the UK. Which practically, wouldn't be an issue. But they would have a say in that.

Here's my reasoning:

The employer can expect you to show up for work. Due to the current situation, you're working from home. In a normal setting, they could expect you to show up in the office. So I would say they can expect you to show up at your place of work, which is currently your place of residence, in the UK.

If you intend to take a holiday, I do not see that they have a right to tell you where to spend it, on the other hand. That's simply a matter of practicalities - the UK government was recently considering quarantine for people coming in from certain countries, the country you're going to may have or still put restrictions in place, etc.

That may make it difficult for you to return to work in time when your holidays are up.

So no, they can't tell you not to go. Yes, they can tell you not to work from another country.

Not showing up at your place of work is actually a reason to fire you in almost all legislations I'm aware of, so yes, you could get fired for this. Reasonable, in my opinion.

I would suggest looking for an amicable solution, if you've been there for a couple of years, they may be amenable. But be prepared for them saying no.

Also, do double check your contract. It will likely state the place of work.

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  • This is a very corona-specific variant of a more common problem. As a ballet dancer, you are contractually not allowed to ski, even on vacation (at least it used to be the case). As a boxer in a particular weight class, your job is at stake if you eat too much (de facto, even if not contractually). While for an office worker, it is difficult to see how they could so specifically limit you, OP should ask around whether you can be insured both for travel, illness and loss of workplace under such circumstances. This will give you an idea. Or perhaps OP should take unpaid leave? – Captain Emacs May 30 at 12:54
  • My contract actually does state a place of employment. More specific arrangements aside, they can expect me to show up there, otherwise I'm in breach of contract. – bytepusher May 30 at 13:08
  • they can expect you to show up at your place of work, which is currently your place of residence, in the UK most of my colleagues have already left their normal place of residence to go stay with their families (within the UK), what about that? – yejep May 31 at 11:10
  • @yejep depending on the length of the period you stay away there might be problems with taxes. I can't remember UK but there is a maximum period you can stay abroad. Company, usually, also have stricter limits but you need to check your handbook – Adriano Repetti May 31 at 12:05
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    @yejep I assume the company allows for this. It's reasonable that staying outside of the country may be evaluated differently. It's still up to them in my opinion. – bytepusher May 31 at 13:59
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Technically speaking, we monitor for foreign IP addresses attempting to access out VPN, and would report and block this immediately.

Depending on where you are going to, you may also be stopped by GDPR and data protection act from working in the target country.

Ultimately, if there is any expectation that you physical presence may be required, then you would need permission. If there is not a requirement for your physical presence I would "ask" in an "its happening but this is a courtesy" kind of way.

Also, like to remind you, that furloughed staff only have a minimum notice of 24 hours when being asked to return to work, I'm not sure how that affects you.

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So what I'm looking for here is whether they have any concrete legal basis to tell me that I can't do this.

You seem to be under the assumption that "Work-From-Home" is some exceptional, never seen before "get out of jail free" situation where you can do whatever is not illegal. It's not. Your employer can make you provide your work at a location they set. That is trivially true, I'm not even going to source that. Our whole concept of "work" would not function if the miner could just say "I never liked this dark cave, I'm going to mine coal on a sunny beach for a month". Your employer sets when, where and what your work is. The only way to get out of this without terminating your contract one way or another is legal exceptions like basic human rights, personal medical conditions and other applicable laws that set exceptions.

Their concrete legal base is your working contract. Look it up. I bet it says that your employer can pick the location of your work and it lists their office and it says that the employer reserves the right to change that at any time and for any reason. Because no company in their right mind would do it otherwise.

None of what you have listed registers with me as a legal exception where you would still work and get paid. Many countries have laws that say caring for family is an exception and you are protected from being fired when doing it (in the UK this would be the CARE act I guess), but all that I know assume that caring for your relatives is actually something that takes time so you cannot work full time and therefor need to be protected.

EDIT One thing I forgot to mention is that most of my colleagues have already left their normal place of residence to go stay with their families (within the UK).

Well, then you have some grounds, you should be allowed to do the same as to not bring your employer into any legal trouble regarding discrimination laws. However, you are not asking to do the same. You are asking to go to a foreign country. They would be well in their right to say "sorry, we approve UK only, it's the same for everybody".

So to sum it up: you asked for a legal base and that legal base is something you have with you: your working contract. Look it up. It will say where you are supposed to be while working and who can change that.

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Under UK legislation, if you are going to provide care you have the right to do so and the company cannot stop you. If the government puts legislation that restricts your free movement then that is not your fault and cannot be a cause for dismissal because that would be illegal, too. The Care Act does have some influence in this area as does Equality Act 2010.

The technicality of the Equality Act is that of discrimination arising from nationality (race) where a local resident would not be prohibited from providing equal care to their family member but you are on the basis of your ethnicity.

If you are contractually obliged to do something that is inherently contrary to statutory law then that contractual obligation is unenforceable in law and ultra vires. You also have recourse to dispute resolution through ACAS after following internal dispute resolution procedures.

The problem arises in that you state "if needed" which means you may find this route difficult and probably not a good idea. If it was your wife or an elderly or disabled person and you were the only available help then it would be a different matter.

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  • I very much doubt that you are responsible for giving care to family members abroad. And discrimination only comes into it if British employees would be allowed to look after British relatives living abroad and non-British employees are not. – gnasher729 May 31 at 10:19
  • While the company cannot stop you, do they have to pay you although you do not do the job as requested? – nvoigt May 31 at 11:24
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My employer requires that I can only work “from home” or more like “not from the office” if it is a secure place where I can guarantee that nobody can access my work. Like a place where I can lock things In the night, no uncontrolled visitors etc. Working from a hotel room would not be acceptable. And I need halfway decent internet access, and couldn’t go to a place where corrupt police could come and take my laptop.

Foreign places might be also problematic for tax reasons. For example, the USA expects you to pay income tax if you work while physically present in the USA (and you’d need a visa). So visiting relatives in Scotland vs Switzerland would be different from that point of view.

14 days quarantine when you return is no problem because you’d be quarantined at your home and could work from home.

I’d contact the employer. They can let you take holiday, perhaps unpaid holiday, or they might allow you working from abroad. Before your talk decide how important this is to you and what you would be willing to give up and tell them. If you say “I want to work from the continent for four weeks”, the answer might be “no”. If you are a valued employee and say “...and if I can’t work from the continent I’ll find another job”, the answer might be different.

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Now that the overall situation is getting a little better I'm planning to go back to Europe to see my family, I'm worried about the health conditions of a close relative and I would like to be there to help if needed. The plan is to be there for a few weeks, some of holiday and some of remote work.

Key point here is that you want this to be a part holiday and yet, you expect to be paid for doing, I assume, full-time work. It's a similar scenario to an extremely common policy for WFH and having to take care of children - it doesn't work. Even if you are WFH but need to watch after your kids (or other family members in need of care) then you are not going to be doing your job at 100% capacity and should be taking time off instead. Your situation isn't different, you want to go and visit/take care of your family, and likely should take time off for it, other employees not doing so notwithstanding.

Can they forbid me to travel?

They can't forbid you from traveling after working hours, what you do in that time is broadly speaking none of their business. What they can do is dictate a place from which you are to do work, that's one of the principal parts of employee status, and they certainly can tell you that working from a different country doesn't work for them. You still are allowed to travel for longer periods but will be required to take time off, just like when you were working in an office.

There are many reasons for them to deny it, but two key reasons will be the one I've explained above - that you will be mostly occupied helping/visiting your family, rather than doing actual work. The other is the complexity of the situation you want to get yourself into and whether you can even actually do the work while in a foreign country. The legality of being an e-nomad is complicated and in many places uncertain, and businesses as a general rule want to avoid legal/tax liability whenever possible. Just think about a workplace injury as an example, what happens if that catches you in a different country, where you may or may not have medical insurance?

Of course, if you were to just go to that country (travel after hours), not tell anyone and they never need you to suddenly go somewhere local to your workplace, you may just get away with it and they will be none the wiser as long as you keep up with your duties as you were before (so the idea of having this to be part-holiday likely goes out). Sometimes "don't ask, don't tell" is the best policy.

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