EU referendum: workers’ rights and the right to vote are at stake
Tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech will announce an EU referendum bill which will be published on Thursday (although the issue of who gets to vote was trailed over the weekend.) Last Friday, the Prime Minister began his campaign to ‘renegotiate’ Britain’s membership with other European leaders at a Council meeting in Riga, and last night he had European Commission President Juncker to his country pile (as you do!) So what are the issues under discussion and what are trade unions saying?
The narrative on the right is clear, as Daniel Hannan MEP set out last night: Cameron will secure only cosmetic changes, and will then rush for a referendum (possibly as early as next May, on the same day as London and Scotland vote) on pretty much the current terms. They will shout ‘treachery’ and right-wing Tories will join UKIP in camp-aligning for an ‘out’ vote, commonly known now as Brexit.
In some ways, we wish they were correct. But we’re worried that Cameron will try to get some real change out of his fellow European leaders, not just on procedural issues like the possibility of Parliamentary ‘red cards’ for new legislation. Siren voices from the employers are calling for reductions in worker protections, including amendments to the Working Time Directive and the Temporary Agency Workers Directive, as well as a moratorium on any future social legislation. That would be bad news for British workers, and could deal the ‘in’ campaign (including those same business leaders) a fatal blow, handing victory to UKIP and the Tory right.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady warned business leaders like CBI President Mike Rake last week to ‘be careful what you wish for’, saying:
“Business leaders who want the UK to stay in the European Union should be careful what they wish for. If companies push for EU re-negotiation on the basis of weakening workers’ rights they will make the ‘yes’ vote they want less likely. Flexible labour markets far too often mean greater insecurity for working people. Chipping away at paid holidays, rest breaks and fair treatment for part-time and agency workers is not the way to bring the British public on side. We need a Europe that works for everyone, not a race to the bottom on rights at work.”
And GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny argued the same thing, saying:
“If what David Cameron brings back from the re-negotiations tilts the balance even further away from standards for workers, as the CBI wants, many organizations traditionally in favour will campaign for a No vote.”
Another key issue is freedom of movement, but I’ll blog on that later. On both workers’ rights and freedom of movement, however, the TUC will be working with our allies in the European trade union movement to persuade governments across the EU to reject any calls from Cameron for reductions in workers’ rights.
Unions will also be demanding that Conservative attempts to restrict the number of people who are able to vote are rejected. The Government looks set to reject the example of the Scottish referendum where 16-17 year olds were allowed to vote, and to refuse to honour their pledge to enfranchise all expatriate British citizens, however long they have lived abroad. They will also refuse a vote to the hundreds of thousands of EU citizens living and working in the UK (and paying taxes, buying goods, sending their kids to school etc) unless they are Irish or Commonwealth citizens (ie Cypriots and Maltese.) And although some Tories argue that they are merely following the rules for Parliamentary elections, members of the House of Lords will get a vote, which they don’t at General Elections. Our view is that we should be encouraging people to vote, not persuading them to abstain, and on 16-17 year olds, we have a long-standing policy demanding that they get the vote in all elections: old enough to work and pay income tax, old enough to join the armed forces, old enough to vote!