Theresa May at Conservative Conference 2016. Photo: David Hartley /REX /Shutterstock
Workers’ rights and Brexit: holding the PM to her pledges
Last Friday, I reiterated our key demand of the Government over Brexit: workers must not pay the price for the decision to leave. TUC opinion polling after the referendum showed that whatever people voted for on 23 June, it wasn’t to lose precious rights at work. The TUC and unions – as well as progressive politicians and commentators – have been arguing the case that the protections workers have had guaranteed by EU membership should not be lost.
In fact I’ve gone further: I don’t just want our rights pickled on the day Britain leaves the EU, I want to make sure that British workers don’t fall behind their colleagues in the rest of the EU after that. We shouldn’t engage in a race to the bottom with our European neighbours on rights and pay – and we could even hope to make the case for British workers having the best rights in the world.
Over the weekend, the Prime Minister Theresa May and the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU (David Davis) suggested that they were at least listening. David Davis said:
“To those who are trying to frighten British workers, saying ‘When we leave, employment rights will be eroded’, I say firmly and unequivocally ‘no they won’t’. Britain already goes beyond EU law in many areas – and we give this guarantee: this Conservative government will not roll back those rights in the workplace” (my emphasis.)
Now, David Davis – who memorably described aspects of the Trade Union Bill as having more in common with Franco’s Spain – has said this before. But we’ve learned to be a bit cautious about anything we hear about Brexit until it comes out of the mouth of the Prime Minister herself.
So it was good that the Prime Minister had already said in her speech …
“Let me be absolutely clear: existing workers’ legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law – and they will be guaranteed as long as I am Prime Minister. And in fact, as we announced yesterday, under this Government, we’re going see workers’ rights not eroded, and not just protected, but enhanced under this Government.”
Some, of course, are sceptical. They note that the promise only extends to Theresa May’s premiership, which as David Cameron found out, is not secure employment. Others have drawn attention to the possibility of including fast-track deregulation provisions (known as Henry VIII clauses) in the Great Repeal Bill that she also promised, to scrap the 1972 European Communities Act. She did not pledge to match every improvement in workers’ rights enacted in Europe after we leave the EU. And her commitment to stop the judgments of the European Court of Justice having force in the UK – especially without abolishing Employment Tribunal fees – would also seriously undermine workers’ ability to enforce the spirit, as well as the letter, of those laws.
We have a lot more campaigning to do to make sure that workers don’t pay for Brexit with their rights – and even more to do to make sure they don’t pay with their jobs and their wages and their public services if we don’t secure the nation’s economic future by staying members of the single market.
But unions can at least take credit for the impact that our campaigning is having, registering with the government the need not just to freeze but extend workers’ rights, and getting the most senior Conservative politicians to recognise the need to ensure that Brexit doesn’t mean taking away our protections.
So we welcome Theresa May’s commitment to guarantee workers’ rights for as long as she is Prime Minister. And we’ll make sure that we use the review of insecure work announced by the Prime Minister at conference to make clear how those rights need to be strengthened. But we also need better protection that can span across future governments. We need May’s government to ensure that any future trade deal between the UK and EU includes a commitment not to fall behind the EU on improvements to employment rights.
The Prime Minister must follow her words on improving workers‘ rights with action. Britain’s job market has proved to be a magnet for the wrong kind of bosses. There must be tougher rules to stop them using zero-hours contracts to keep the whip hand over workers, and to undercut decent employers. And the hefty Employment Tribunal fees that are pricing hard working people out of justice must be scrapped.
The Prime Minister must listen to Britain’s trade unions who represent millions of workers at the hard end of an unfair labour market. The TUC stands ready to work with the government to give working people the new rights they need for fairness and security at work.