10 top Brexiteers explain why they’re a danger to our rights at work
From paid holidays to pregnancy rights, and from safety standards to protections from discrimination. Every right that’s guaranteed by European law is a right that trade unions fought for, to improve the lives of working people. Together they form a vital layer of protection to stop our own government from being able to cut things we take for granted at work. Unions and legal experts agree that if we leave in the referendum on 23 June, a lot of these rights could be at risk.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. Look at what leave campaign leaders themselves have said in the past, or keep watching when the mask slips during this long campaign, and you’ll get something of a different story. Running right through the Brexit leadership is a desire to cut what they see as regulations, and we see as rights.
We’ve put together a gallery of workers’ rights rogues, showing in their own words why we don’t trust them with our vital protections at work.
1. Boris Johnson
Boris may have performed a notorious U-turn over the whole issue of Europe, but his disregard for workers’ rights has been much more consistent. He once summarised his preferred model for the EU as: “Boil it down to the single market. Scrap the social chapter.”
“The weight of employment regulation is now back-breaking: the collective redundancies directive, the atypical workers directive, the working time directive and a thousand more.”
During the Prime Minister’s recent negotiations over Britain’s relationship to the EU he responded to the Trades Union movement’s successful lobbying to remove employment rights from the scope of negotiation thusly: “I looked at the headlines this morning about the possibility of Britain dropping its insistence on changes to employment law and I thought that was very disappointing.” He continued “So I think we need to weigh in on all that stuff, all that social chapter stuff”.
Boris might think of all this stuff as merely obstructive regulation but for ordinary workers these laws ensure they are safe, healthy and free from exploitation and discrimination at work.
2. Priti Patel
Prominent Brexiteer Priti Patel MP let the cat out the bag in a recent speech to the Institute of Directors:
“If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3 billion boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs.”
Now, we don’t accept her claims on any economic benefits of that kind of deregulation (it reminds us of right wing claims the minimum wage would cost a million jobs, when it did the opposite), but her hostile attitude to worker rights is particularly concerning.
These “burdens” viewed from working people’s end of the telescope are actually protections that we’re understandably very keen on. She didn’t explain which half of EU derived rights she’d cut, but used the weird example of cutting working time rights for self-employed lorry drivers, ‘allowing’ them to drive more than 48 hours a week. We don’t think many people want trucks with tired drivers on our streets.
3. Iain Duncan Smith
The quiet man of Brexit will probably wish he had been a bit quieter after his appearance on BBC Sunday Politics (watch him here). He tried to duck Andrew Neill’s question on whether he’d keep the Working Time Directive if the UK leaves the EU (with its guarantees on paid holiday, work breaks and protections from excessive hours). The best he could manage was an unconvincing “I believe that it’s right to have it, but the question is how flexible you are about the way it’s operated”.
Unions have a lot of experience of government and employers trying to make our working time rights more “flexible”. Our concerns are that where our guaranteed rights get watered down, bad bosses are the first to take advantage. Over time, even the better employers start to follow as you get a “new normal”. That kind of flexibility mainly works one way, and it isn’t the right way.
4. Steve Hilton
Cameron’s former “blue sky thinking” policy guru announced for Brexit in a Daily Mail article, complaining that “membership of the EU brings with it constraints on everything from employment law to family policy”. It sound like he’s not changed his tune since he suggested maternity rights should be abolished, he was said to believe that they were “the biggest obstacle to a woman finding work”.
As the TUC has pointed out countless times, the evidence on maternity rights points in the opposite direction: as maternity rights have improved over the past three decades so has women’s employment. Hilton may be frustrated by the constraints that EU rules placed on his blue-skies. But we think many working women will be very pleased that the EU guarantees their rights.
5. Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage must qualify as the UK’s arch-Brexiteer. Along with making his lack of appreciation for the EU clear at every opportunity, he has not been shy about holding forth on a range of controversial issues. For instance, a few years ago he got into hot water after offering his views on the issue of women in the workplace:
“A woman who has a client base, has a child and takes two or three years off – she is worth far less to her employer when she comes back than when she went away because that client base won’t be stuck as rigidly to her portfolio”
It is perhaps irksome to Nigel that the EU strengthened our protections to ensure that employers cannot employ his logic to discriminate against mothers at work.
6. Tim Martin
Mr Martin, CEO of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, is one of a few business-based Brexiteers. He recently weighed in on the issue of zero-hours contracts (which his company are notorious for their reliance on). To Mr Martin, contracts that provide a highly unstable income with their personal life at the mercy of their employer is vital because “In a trade like pubs it would probably push up the price of a pint if there was regulation”.
With an EU proposal currently on the table to strengthen workers’ right to a written statement of particulars for the job – potentially including specifying expected hours of work – is Mr Martin hoping to secure continued government inaction on the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts?
7. Martin Callanan
Martin Callanan, Conservative Peer Baron Callanan, was MEP for the North East of England from 1999-2014 and Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament. Mr Callanan made his views on worker’s rights quite clear when he called for the abolition of the whole employment and social affairs directorate. He dismissed “the Working Time Directive, the Agency Workers’ Directive, (and) the Pregnant Workers’ Directive” as merely “other barriers to actually employing people.”
In fact decent working conditions tend to produce more motivated and productive workers. Mr Callanan’s suggestions would put workers at risk, not just of exploitation but of serious harm, and in places like hospitals they risk putting patients lives at risk.
8. John Redwood
Back in 2007 John Redwood MP produced a document called “Freeing Britain To Compete”. It was considered a bit of an embarrassment for the Conservative party at the time, so you don’t hear much reference to it these days. Looking it over it is easy to understand why. Mr Redwood identified a slew of reforms he felt would make the UK economy more competitive. These involved:
“restoring the Social Chapter opt out, and producing UK rules on: Works Councils, part time and fixed term working, sex discrimination, information, and consultation. These should balance the interests of existing employees with the need for a flexible labour market to create more jobs.”
John Redwood’s kind of competition is sadly the type most people end up losing. It means weakening and scrapping protections sparking a race to the bottom in pay, conditions and safety.
9. Donald Trump
Okay, he might not actually get a vote in this one, but The Donald was quick to come out for Brexit after Obama suggested the UK might be better off in.
He’s currently engaged in a battle to stop workers at his Las Vegas hotel from forming a union. He also supports the controversial “right to work” laws that have been brought in by many right wing state governments in the US, designed to reduce union rights and allow employers to undercut working conditions. In fact he suggested states with lower rights should compete for jobs against those with more.
Unions are campaigning in Europe to raise minimum standards as a way to stop exploitation and undercutting of better conditions. We certainly don’t want countries playing off against each other for the worst worker rights.
10. All the rest of the Conservative Party
We know they’re not exactly united on this one, but whether they’re innies or outies, if we leave the EU they’ll still be the government. That means they’re the ones who would get to decide which of the EU’s employment rights we keep, which we cut, and which we scrap.
We don’t need to look at their past statements on employment rights, when we’ve got some pretty clear evidence from what they’ve actually done.
In 2013 they took an axe to workers’ abilities to stand up for themselves at work. They doubled the waiting period for unfair dismissals, meaning you now have to be working somewhere for two whole years before your boss is banned from sacking you on a whim. This right wasn’t underpinned by EU law, so the government were free to push this change through.
And they brought in tribunal fees to price workers out of justice. Asking £400 up front to do something about your boss not paying you owed wages is perhaps the definition of unfair. Want to complain about being discriminated against? That’s £1,200.
In advance of the referendum, David Cameron toured Europe to try to water down EU work rights, by letting the UK opt out of some of them. We worked with unions across Europe, who stood firm and told their governments to send him packing. If he’s still PM after Brexit, we’re sure he’d be back.
And trade unionists have particular reason for caution after the Trade Union Bill passed into law. A campaign by unions and allies cut the bill down hugely in its damaging scope, but even so it brings in a whole slew of restrictions on unions, and undermines workers’ right to strike.
Don’t risk it
Many of the rights we take for granted are on the line in this referendum. The Brexit camp want to do away with guarantees from the EU, and let them cut away at our rights and protections.
It won’t take long for bad bosses to take advantage of the new minimums, and over time everyone’s job will get a little worse and a little less safe, as more and more employers revise working conditions downwards to the “new normal”. We’ll also miss out on positive new rights coming from Europe (let’s face it, we’re not likely to win much better in the UK alone in the next few years, what with this lot in charge).
If you care about the rights you have at work, or what the world of work is going to look like for your kids or grandkids, don’t believe the Brexiteers, and don’t risk it on 23 June.