How will Wales keep up with the EU after Brexit?

Published date
A couple of weeks ago, the European Commission launched a proposal to create a common framework on minimum wage. The Welsh Government published its International Strategy in the same week. The strategy commits Wales to the “values and policies that are at the heart of the EU.” So how does Wales, a country that doesn’t have powers over employment law, respond?

We’re committing to keep pace, but we’ve not really explored how this’ll happen, especially in areas where we don’t have direct powers. Does it mean committing to how the EU chooses to proceed? Or should it mean aspiring to be like those member states who have the highest standards? Because that doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing.

The Commission’s proposals have caused concern because they risk resulting in lower minimum wages for sectors in some EU states. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland are concerned that the proposals could undermine the sectoral collective agreements that establish sectoral minimum wages through a process of negotiation between employer and worker representatives. The Commission  argues these arrangements won’t be undermined. However, they have faced criticism for failing to prioritise the growth of collective bargaining across the EU as a more effective way to raise pay and labour standards.

Wales can be nimble and ambitious

And perhaps that’s a better way to approach policy development in a post-Brexit Wales. Rather than treating the EU as gold standard, perhaps we need to be a little more critical. Or a little more selective. We don’t need the agreement of 20 odd member states to introduce something here – we can be nimble and ambitious and we need to take advantage of that. There are far too many sectors in Wales where people aren’t getting a fair reward or accessing their collective voice. These are key components of the definition of fair work.

Sectoral bargaining isn’t a million miles away. We’ve got some voluntary sectoral bargaining arrangements in areas like construction at UK level (like the NAECI agreement). And we successfully fought to reinstate an Agricultural Wages Panel to put sectoral pay bargaining on a statutory footing. But we’ve lost the power that enabled the latter and plans for introduce voluntary arrangements in sectors like social care (through a Fair Work Forum) haven’t yet got off the ground.

That’s what we need to be reflecting on. The solutions aren’t necessarily at the EU level. They’re not necessarily elsewhere. In lots of cases, we know what to do – we just need to set up the right structures to deliver them.

This is where social partnership gets interesting and really, really challenging. In our devolved public sector, we know who the unions and employers are and they can all sit around the table through arrangements like the Workforce Partnership Council. But looking at other sectors, we can identify the worker voice – the unions that organise in them – but the employer voice isn’t always so easy to identify. But that can’t stop us. If we want to make work fairer in Wales, if we don’t want to fall behind as a result of Brexit, we’ve got to look at what’ll deliver the very best results for Wales. And that means prioritising collective bargaining.

Do we need additional powers?

But then there’s also the bigger question – do we accept our limited powers over employment law and try to keep pace within these limitations? Or do we need to explore what additional powers we need in order to create fairer work in Wales?

This will obviously be a hugely divisive issue in our movement. Depending on where you organise and what you’re seeking to achieve, you’re likely to have an entirely different perspective on this. But Brexit – and losing those protections that derive from EU law -  is pushing us to ask these questions if we’re genuinely committing to fairer work in Wales.