How the EU got me a free iPhone

Knowing EU law is more useful than it seems, as Jon Worth found out.

My 16 month old iPhone 4S had a hardware fault: the power button on the top of the phone would not press properly, it was partially stuck. You had to push the button with all your might to get the thing to turn off, or just to turn off the screen. It turns out this is a very common iPhone 4 and 4S problem – see here, as well as numerous similar posts on Apple’s forums.

I’d bought the phone from the Apple Store online, so had to go to an Apple Store to get someone to have a look at it. There is no store in Copenhagen or Brussels, so I went to the Geneva store when I was working in Switzerland last week. I booked my appointment at Genius Bar, and – in French – started to explain my problem. Barely had I got to the end of the sentence and the guy knew exactly what I was about to report… but he couldn’t help me. My phone was out of warranty, and I had not bought it in Switzerland.

The latter is important, because my case for getting a new phone, for free, from Apple, was by citing Directive 1999/44/EC about guarantees for electronic goods in the EU. This basically says that if a fault was in the product when it was purchased, the manufacturer will have to take it back and replace it within the first 2 years – i.e. double the 1 year warranty that Apple gives. More details about the Directive here, and a legal case about it in Belgium here. I’d purchased my phone direct from Apple, that’s why I needed to go to them for the replacement. If I had the phone on a contract from O2 or Vodafone or whoever, I would have had to do all of this via the mobile phone company instead.

Anyway, the guy in the Geneva store said that I better phone Apple’s main European call centre in Ireland and see what they say, as Geneva could not make a judgment on the applicability of EU law. So back at my hotel I called the call centre in Ireland. It took 30 minutes on the phone, and my call was referred to three different staff. My line was clear and persistent:

  • The fault with the power button is well known
  • The phone was purchased in the EU (shipped from Ireland to a UK address)
  • That hence EU law should apply, and I should be entitled to a new phone even though I was beyond Apple’s own 12 month warranty

The most senior person I spoke to was most amenable. Rather than ask about the phone directly, he asked about my history as a purchaser of Apple products. I’ve only had Apple computers since 1994, and said so. He even asked for the serial number of my MacBook Pro to check I was telling the truth – giving this reassured him that I was. He then said that, in this case, they would be willing to make an exception… So he put a note on my record with Apple, and said I could go to any Apple Store to get a replacement.

So off I went back to the Geneva store to collect my replacement phone. “Comment est-ce que vous avez réussi à obtenir cela?” [How did you get that?] the guy there asked me. “Enfin, la raison que je suis à Genève aujourd’hui est pour donner des cours en politique de l’UE… donc je connais mes droits comme consommateur en droit européen!” [The reason I'm in Geneva today is to give courses in the politics of the EU… so I know my rights as a consumer under European law!] So I handed in the old phone, received the new one from the store, and off I went. Mission accomplished.

This was originally posted on Jon's blog, and has been reposted here with permission.

Photograph: bredgur/flickr, CC-BY-SA

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.