#EUreferendum: Brexit risks our employment rights
Whilst media attention focuses on the impact the EU referendum seems to be having on relations between members of the Conservative Party, there are more serious concerns about the impact the result could have on rights for working people. The reality is that many positive changes for workers in the UK have happened directly as a result of EU membership.
As we’ve seen increasing pressure from some employers and from the current and coalition governments to erode standards at work in the UK, the EU has provided resistance to the introduction of the worst hire-and-fire culture of exploitation and abuse of workers that is endured elsewhere. As a new report from the TUC shows, from paid holidays to protection from discrimination, there’s a lot at stake in the referendum debate.
There is little doubt that our government is keen to reduce employment rights in the UK. There have already been detrimental changes making access to Employment Tribunals more restricted, with high new up-front costs massively reducing the number of workers able to make legitimate challenges when their employer treats them unfairly.
In the event of a Brexit, the UK government would choose which rights to implement in UK law, and which to remove or dilute. There can be little doubt that the Conservatives would go further and faster if their ambitions to reduce protections at work weren’t curtailed by the EU’s aspiration for fair treatment at work.
And in doing so, they’d provide a licence for employers to cut existing contracts back, nearer to the new legal minimums. Unscrupulous employers would lead the charge, but it could eventually end up establishing a new normal, in the way we’ve seen in the UK with many employers’ retreat over time from the better pensions that average jobs used to provide.
The Working Time Directive, introduced in 1998, provided for the first time an entitlement to annual paid leave. It’s something that many workers take for granted but for six million workers, many low paid women, this was the first time they had a right to take a paid holiday from work. The Directive also provides protections from excessive working hours; 700,000 fewer workers now endure a working week of over 48 hours. If anyone thinks these regulations are safe they should look at Conservative MEP Angela McIntyre’s views last year, when she called it a “thoroughly meddlesome, socialist-inspired directive” and urged the European Commission to “get rid of it once and for all”.
Many public service workers have seen their employer change without any say or choice on their behalf as public services have been contracted out, often a number of times. Whilst not perfect, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations in 2006 do provide safeguards to workers, including pay and conditions and continuity of employment and protection from dismissal. We know this government wants to continue to shrink the public sector, making further privatisations likely. It’s important not to lose these vital protections.
Employers are increasingly adopting different models of employment as a way of reducing costs and imposing undesirable contracts on workers. In the last ten years we have seen the use of Agency Workers increase. After a long campaign by trade unions in Europe the EU did introduce the Agency Workers Regulations in 2011 which saw significant increases in pay and access to paid leave for thousands of workers. We are now seeing the use of Zero Hours Contracts grow rapidly. Apart from making it really difficult for workers to enjoy a consistent income and plan their lives, ZHCs also mean that many workers lose out on basic employment rights, including even the right to a written contract of employment – again a result of an EU directive.
The EU has decided to review the regulations to ensure that all workers, including those on ZHCs, must have rights to a written contract of employment and their expected hours of work – something that is a real concern for working people in the UK, especially young workers.
Rights for pregnant workers, new mothers and new fathers have all come from the EU. Any new parent knows how important it is to spend valuable time at home without suffering detriment at work. It is the EU that has afforded these protections and also broadened vital anti-discrimination laws to include age, religion or belief and sexual orientation and to shift the burden of proof in discrimination cases from the individual to the employer.
An objective analysis would show that working people enjoy far better protections at work and a much more positive, family-friendly environment as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU. It guarantees the basic minimum standards that millions rely upon, but also helps prevent undercutting of conditions for those of us lucky enough to have more generous contracts.
Part of the consideration in the run up to the referendum on the UK’s membership really ought to be devoted to the question, “will my employment rights and those of future workers be better within the EU, or better under a Conservative government unfettered by EU membership?” I think the answer to that is pretty clear.