Instead of focusing on the issues that matter, the Conservative party is again descending into one of its periodic bouts of Europhobic obsession, as evidenced yet again today with their site Let Britain Decide. Immigration is perhaps the main cause of their unease with the European Union. But alongside this the desire to wrest back control of employment law is right up there.
The social chapter of EU law sets out minimum requirements on member states in terms of employment law. Having initially opted out under the Tories, Tony Blair signed the UK up to the social chapter, requiring us to comply with its directives. Both those who want to remain in the EU on renegotiated terms, and those Tories and UKIP members who are pushing for us to leave, are determined to reverse this and to repatriate employment law.
The concern for those who care about workplace rights is that ‘repatriation’ would merely pave the way for an erosion of rights at work. Evidence of the intent is seen in the Beecroft report which called on the government to pare back employment protection in the vain hope that this would spur growth. This is despite the fact that our labour market is already among the most open and least regulated in the OECD.
When it comes to progressive employment legislation, the EU has normally led the way with the UK reluctantly following. EU directives obliged us to extend protection from discrimination at work based on religion, age and sexual orientation. Decision in Brussels required us to extend maternity and paternity rights and to introduce TUPE legislation.
Those calling for a repatriation of power have been particularly annoyed by two relatively recent developments. The working time directive enshrines basic rights to leave, breaks and rest days. It prevents employees from being forced to work excessive hours. The agency workers directive ensures ‘temporary’ staff are entitled to equal treatment with other workers. Neither is overly onerous on employers. Both promote fairness. If these provisions were scrapped, it could hurt many millions of workers and shift the balance of power at work further away from employees.
Strangely, some on the left have joined the right in calling for a withdrawal from the EU. Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, has said ‘we should have a referendum now … and my view is that we should come out.’ He argues that immigration from the EU has led to the undercutting of pay, terms and conditions for working people. There is evidence of a small negative impact on wages at the bottom due to migration. But this is best countered, not by closing the borders, but through enforcing the minimum wage, unionising low paid workers (including migrants) and protecting people from exploitation.
It makes sense to decide some laws at a European level. Without EU-wide standards, both countries with decent employment rights and employers who treated their staff fairly would be undercut by those that did not. Deciding such policies on a purely state-by-state basis would lead to a competitive degradation of employment rights; a race to the bottom in which we all lose.
And this is not to say that the EU is perfect. The remorseless obsession with austerity is self-defeating. Deficits can only be sustainably reduced through restoring growth across Europe and this must be the EU’s priority.
But just as membership of the EU has been vital to the evolution of employment rights in the UK, it remains vital to their protection and extension in the future. Not only does membership secure access to the single market (and the jobs on which this depends), it is key to defending rights at work. Trade unions and all those who care about equality and workers’ rights should be making the case for a progressive, social Europe, focused on decent jobs and growth. And those on the left who flirt with ‘Brexit’ should wonder why they’ve found themselves on the same side of the argument as the ‘swivel-eyed loons’.
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