A bad Brexit would threaten workers’ hard‑earned rights

Published date
15 Feb 2018
The foreign secretary’s Brexit speech was meant to calm fears and persuade concerned Brits that Brexit is going to be just fine. But working people should be worried.

The innocent-sounding ‘regulatory divergence’ he promoted is code for cutting back workers’ rights, environmental protections and consumer standards.

After all, Boris Johnson is on the record opposing fair treatment for agency workers and rights for people made redundant. And just before Christmas he briefed the Sunday papers that Brexit would mean we could scrap the working time directive. Trade unions know that without it bad bosses would waste no time attacking paid holidays, rest breaks and safe limits on working hours.

The TUC is clear: the UK voted to leave the EU — not to leave workers worse off. Brexit must not be used as a pretext for a race to the bottom on workers’ rights.

To those who doubt whether EU laws have helped workers: millions of workers got paid holiday for the first time in 1998 thanks to EU rules, fought for by unions. Add to that the agency workers who’ve got extra protection, the parents with extra time off, the women who’ve benefitted from equal pay, the lorry drivers who now get mandated rest breaks — and the picture is clear.

EU workers’ rights — won by trade unionists across Europe — are a key part of the patchwork of our protections at work. We need a Brexit that guarantees we don’t lose them, and that makes sure they keep improving. We want a UK where workers’ rights get better, to keep pace with the changing world of work.

That means unions organising in more workplaces. It means the UK government getting on with banning zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment. On Brexit it means the UK and the EU agreeing a level playing field on workers’ rights, so that hardworking Brits do not fall behind when workers in the EU get new rights in the future.

On this, trade unions in the UK and across Europe agree. We are quietly confident that maintaining a level playing field on workers’ rights will be in the European Council’s guidelines for round two of the negotiations.

This could prove an easy win for Theresa May. When she announced her negotiating objectives, she promised to protect and enhance workers’ rights. Slapping down notions of “regulatory divergence” would show she was putting working people in the UK first as she negotiates Brexit.

Of course, one way to guarantee workers’ rights into the future is by staying part of the single market. A customs union alone — while it would have other benefits — wouldn’t protect workers’ rights.

That’s why we believe that all options must be on the table for the negotiations. There may be other approaches that could guarantee workers’ rights, of course but no-one has shown us one yet.

Perhaps that’s because business, unions, the nations and regions are pretty much excluded from the thinking and negotiations. The prime minister should consider changing her approach and hearing from a range of voices concerned to bring good jobs and prosperity to the UK after Brexit.

That’s got to be better than having longer working hours, fewer paid holidays and an extreme Brexit forced on us all by a small group of hardliners in the Conservative party.

This blog by TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady first appeared as a Red Box comment piece on the Times Online.