With news of a general election in June, now is the time to ensure that workers’ rights are high on the political agenda.
Since so many of our employment laws are derived from European directives, Brexit poses a very real threat to workers’ rights. There have been mixed messages from key members of the current government on the future of these rights post Brexit. So will we see our rights “maintained and enhanced” or will we face a “bonfire of regulation”?
The Great Repeal bill
Two recent white papers set out the proposals for withdrawal from the EU. The Great Repeal bill will repeal the existing European Communities Act 1992 (which currently provides for EU law to be transcribed into domestic law) and convert much of the existing European law into UK legislation.
But there are many problems with the proposals:
- Most importantly, there are no guarantees to protect rights in the longer term. We will see many rights protected on day one, but very wide-ranging powers for them to be repealed or amended after this.
- Many rights will be in secondary legislation, meaning they will not be debated by Parliament and making it easier for the government to water down, or remove, existing laws.
- The UK Supreme Court will have the power to override decisions of the European Court of Justice which were in place before leaving the EU.
- UK workers will not benefit from improvements in the law across Europe, many of which are negotiated by the European trade unions. For example, there are currently plans to improve the Posted Workers’ Directive (which protects terms and conditions of workers posted to other member states) and enhanced rights for paternity and parental leave.
However, the government’s February white paper states: “The Great Repeal bill will maintain the protections and standards that benefit workers. Moreover, this government has committed not only to safeguard the rights of workers set out in European legislation, but to enhance them.”
A government committed to “enhancing” workers’ rights?
Sadly the warm words in the white papers sound rather hollow.
The February white paper pointed to a few areas where rights for UK workers currently go beyond EU law, such as statutory annual leave and maternity leave. These rights, hard fought for by British trade unions, are in most cases long-standing.
However, in recent years the experience has more often been of wholescale destruction of workers’ rights. Our briefing on the State of Employment Rights looks at this onslaught.
Changes over the last five years included making it easier and cheaper to dismiss workers and denying access to justice by introducing outrageously high fees to bring cases to the employment tribunal.
The Trade Union Act 2016, the most draconian piece of legislation aimed at undermining unions’ effectiveness since the early 1980s, shows a government with little respect for workers’ rights.
During the EU referendum campaign key government ministers made strong statements seeking to reduce protections. Priti Patel, international development secretary, suggested that they could “halve” EU protections at work. Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, talked about “weighing in” on “all that social chapter stuff”, which includes employment rights. Many on the right have talked of a “bonfire of regulation” post Brexit.
Melanie Onn, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, brought a Private Members’ bill to seek to protect workers’ rights in the wake of Brexit, but this was talked out by Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. She similarly sought to protect workers’ rights by putting forward an amendment to the bill to trigger article 50, but that, too, was rejected by the government.
This all creates a rather bleak backdrop for ensuring that the government upholds the statement in the white paper to enhance workers’ rights.
Holding our new government to account
We must ensure that employment rights are a key issue in the run up to the general election. Parliamentary candidates should be pressed on their commitment to protect and enhance rights at work.
As Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “We cannot afford to become the bargain basement of Europe when it comes to workers’ rights.”
We should press for long-term protection of employment rights following Brexit, with a guarantee that the law for UK workers keeps pace with those in Europe.
In response to the news of the general election being called, our general secretary Mike Clancy said: “Trade unions are an important part of the solution to the challenges facing the UK with Brexit and the economy.”
Whatever happens in June, unions and individual members will need to hold the government to account and ensure that workers in the UK have rights to fairness and equality.
For more on Brexit, the white papers and workers’ rights see our employment law briefing.