The government’s assurances that workers’ rights will be protected post-Brexit are not convincing, writes Patrick Brione
Last Friday, I watched with disappointment as a series of Conservative members of parliament spoke at great length in parliament about their favourite radio shows and recited a long series of other glib anecdotes. Their purpose? To waste parliamentary time in order to prevent the debate of a bill on workers’ rights. As well as being a sad reflection of the way parliament so often handles private members’ bills, this was particularly disappointing because the issue raised by the bill in question was so very deserving of proper debate. Brought by Melanie Onn MP, the bill proposed to enshrine in British law all employment related rights which workers currently enjoy as a result of our membership of the European Union, as a way of guaranteeing that workers would not lose these rights as a result of Brexit.
The reasons why such a bill might be needed are complex, but boil down to essentially this; while some workplace rights already have their own independent foundation in British law (such as the Equal Pay Act 1970 and Equality Act 2010 which protect against discrimination at work), several other areas of legislation derive either partly or wholly from European directives. These include rights for agency workers, the European Works Council, information and consultation of employees, health and safety, TUPE, the working time directive and the protection of young people at work.
This body of EU law represents many of the vital legal foundations for the United Kingdom’s current system of employment relations – rights that are fundamental assumptions which both employees and employers rely upon every day to provide stability and certainty in their employment relationship.
The Agency Workers Regulations, for example, guarantee agency workers equal treatment with comparable employees in terms of their working conditions after 12 weeks in any particular job – something relevant to a growing portion of the UK workforce as more and more people move into less secure forms of work.
Meanwhile TUPE serves to provide an important degree of certainty and reassurance for workers during otherwise unstable periods such as corporate takeovers or when being contracting out to other companies. Proper consultation and information sharing is guaranteed and employees can be confident that their existing salary, holiday and sick pay and trade union recognition will be protected if their employment is transferred to a new owner.
Of course, a specific bill to protect these workers’ rights might not be required in the end – after all the government has already announced that it plans to introduce a ‘great repeal bill’ that will ‘convert existing EU law into domestic law, wherever practical’. In other words, making sure all EU-based laws and regulations are enshrined in British law, not just those relating to employment rights.
Nevertheless, concerns remain that things might not prove so simple. For starters, as currently proposed this would only retain employment regulations in the form of secondary legislation – easily repealed by this or any future government on a whim, without the need for a new act of parliament. Second, this gives no indications as to what happens to the body of EU case law, such as the 2015 European Court of Justice ruling on paid travelling time for care staff.
How likely is it that this government would seek to remove at least some of these provisions? David Davis has been adamant that he does not want to see employment rights eroded by Brexit, though Liam Fox has previously said that ‘it is too difficult to hire and fire’ and that it ‘is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable.’ As for Theresa May? She has gone on record to say that existing workers’ rights ‘will be guaranteed as long as I am prime minister.’ Given the degree of Brexit-related turbulence the government faces in the coming months and years, one could be forgiven for questioning just how reassuring to find that pledge.
Patrick Brîone is head of policy and research for the IPA. He tweets at @patrickbrione
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.