Rights at work – this May Day, it’s all happening at once
You wait for years for the needs of working people to become the focus of political attention and then suddenly everybody’s interested. The onset of the General Election campaign has coincided with the beginning of Brexit negotiations and the long overdue dawning of understanding at the highest reaches of the European Union that working people are disillusioned with the European project.
Eighteen months ago, we couldn’t get the Remain campaign in the EU referendum to see workplace rights as an issue at all. Since 23 June, we’ve seen a Conservative Prime Minister promising repeatedly to ‘protect and enhance’ the rights of working people, making it one of the top twelve Brexit objectives of her government. Now, everyone is at it. Labour has pledged twenty improvements in workers’ rights and the Prime Minister was forced to respond to a tweet from TUC leader Frances O’Grady on Peston this morning. In Brussels, the European Commission launched its European Pillar of Social Rights on Wednesday, and the Council of Ministers agreed on Saturday that any new trade deal between the EU and UK would need a level playing field of workplace rights.
Responding to the Council of Ministers’ Brexit negotiating guidelines, Frances O’Grady said:
“This is a golden opportunity to secure British workers’ rights. If the Prime Minister wants to keep her promise to protect rights at work, she should accept a level playing field across Europe. The Government needs to put working people at the heart of its Brexit negotiating strategy. That means guaranteeing workplace rights as good as or better than in the rest of Europe, now and in the future.
“Britain must avoid a race to the bottom which would see working people’s rights across Europe trampled on.”
We aren’t so green that we believe Theresa May’s pledges (she wasn’t that convincing in her response on Peston, and we won’t be convinced until we see her promise turned into a binding legal requirement.) Labour have got to get elected before their workers’ charter can be implemented, although the TUC has called on all other political parties to set out their stall on workers’ rights, and the European Commission’s agenda was more a switch in the direction of travel than a satisfactory reboot of the social dimension. Negotiations on an EU-UK trade deal – perhaps the most bankable of all these developments – won’t get underway for at least a year, still less conclude.
But what they all show is that working people are back at the top of the political agenda, and politicians here and across Europe realise they need to appeal to them to win. That gives us the opportunity to demand something more than mere platitudes and promises. It means we can seek assurances about how workers’ needs will be met, whether in terms of tackling the living standards crisis, the growth of insecure employment or the risks to EU workplace rights.
Despite its shortcomings, the European Pillar of Social Rights includes measures such as better rights to paid parental leave which would actually improve the rights of working parents in the UK. Ministers like David Davis MP have consistently claimed credit for British laws being at least as good as EU laws on issues like parental leave (although it would in fact be illegal for the UK to offer rights below those guaranteed by EU directives, so the claim is meaningless.) But if the new EU rules on paid parental leave come into force after the UK leaves that EU, we can demand that politicians pledge to keep up with those rights and don’t let British families fall behind.
And while it’s vitally important that existing EU directives on workers’ rights remain in force during any transitional period after we formally leave the EU, it’s also vital that British political parties pledge to keep British workplace rights at least as good as – if not better than – EU rights now and in the future not only because British workers’ rights mustn’t be undermined, but also because that’s a vital component of achieving tariff-free, burdenless trade in goods and services with the rest of the EU.
The General Election, Brexit and a crisis in politics and economics across Europe demands that politicians go beyond lip service to workers’ needs, and actually deliver a better deal for working people.