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Brexit must not bring a bonfire of workers’ rights

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Yesterday I met the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, along with Irish and European trade union leaders.

We told him that the final Brexit deal must not lead to job losses, start a race to the bottom on workers’ rights, or jeopardise the Good Friday agreement.

Mr Barnier has previously warned that, as the UK government has ruled out staying in the single market and customs union, the only realistic option left for a UK-EU deal is a free trade agreement.

But trade unionists know that merely signing up to a free trade agreement won’t deliver a Brexit that supports more good jobs in the UK.

Last week, the prime minister finally admitted that her Brexit red lines will reduce the UK’s access to the EU market. Less market access means fewer jobs. Vauxhall car workers, already facing job losses at Ellesmere Port, won’t sleep easier knowing that more jobs that depend on EU exports are on the line.

But it’s not just manufacturing jobs that will take a hit. The prime minister now recognises that trade in services is “intrinsically linked to the single market, and therefore our market access in these areas will need to be different”.

In other words, a free trade agreement would exclude most UK services. Yet service sectors account for 38 per cent of our exports to the EU. It’s not hard to see the livelihoods at stake.

A free trade agreement would also fail to protect the workers’ rights that unions won from the EU. Hardworking Brits would lose their guarantee of paid holidays, equal pay, parental leave and protection for temporary and agency workers.

The prime minister wants us to think that our hard-won rights are work are safe. In what was presumably a side swipe at her colleagues, she said last week that ‘nobody serious’ wants a race to the bottom on workers’ rights.

But Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and many more have argued for radical deregulation of workers’ rights. And with the Prime Minister’s own position so precarious, it would be unwise of trade unions to rely on personal assurances, or to dismiss the hostility to workers’ rights from her party colleagues.

That’s why unions across Europe are arguing for the Brexit deal to guarantee a level playing field between the UK and EU on workers’ rights. The deal must protect all the hard-won rights that currently come through the EU. And the deal must be dynamic – when EU workplace rights improve, UK workers must not be left behind.

The EU’s negotiating guidelines published on Wednesday contain a commitment to a level playing field on social measures. And the European Parliament will next week adopt a resolution making explicit that this includes workers’ rights. A similar commitment from the UK government to having that guarantee written into any future UK-EU trade agreement would be a major step forward.

The prime minister must now govern for the whole country, as she promised she would. And she should start these critical negotiations by showing some flexibility. Any negotiator knows that getting the best deal possible requires compromise and involves give and take. And at this stage, it would be sensible to keep all options are on the table – including staying in the single market and customs union. Otherwise the prime minister’s red lines will box Britain into a very bad Brexit.

After all, the alternatives are not promising for good jobs and prosperity. The limitations of a free trade deal with the EU would leave us looking elsewhere to grow our exports. But President Trump has already threatened tariffs on UK aircraft, cars, steel and aluminium. And US healthcare companies are circling like vultures looking to benefit from a carve-up of NHS services. If our future exporting growth depends on his goodwill, UK jobs and public services are in danger.

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

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