Under May's Brexit plans, workers would pay the price of Brexit twice over

Published date
02 Mar 2018
 The prime minister’s doomed attempt to reassure working people that she is still on their side eighteen months after entering No 10 stumbled again today.

Speaking about the future Brexit negotiations, she outlined how she felt our rights at work could be traded away, but acknowledged that there would be a price to pay. Unfortunately, her plan would mean working people would pay that price, as well as losing their rights.

Eighteen months ago, Theresa May promised that the decisions her government would take would be based on the interests of hard working ordinary people rather than the rich and powerful. So far she has presided over inflation running ahead of wages; continuing cuts in public services; and a shuddering u-turn on workers on boards driven by the business community. So we’re pretty sceptical that her approach to Brexit will be any more positive for working people.

And so it's turned out. The only thing she said about workers’ rights in her speech today was that, if the UK used its ‘ambitious divergence mechanism’ to undercut standards like workers’ rights, then the UK needed to be aware that we might lose some access to European markets in return. Sounds reasonable? Even some people on left have argued a similar line in recent weeks.

But consider what would actually happen. Say the UK government decided after Brexit to take the axe to the Working Time Directive which guarantees working people paid holidays, rest breaks and a limit on persistent long working weeks? (This isn’t a hypothetical idea – Cabinet Ministers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove suggested precisely that before Christmas.)

Under May’s plan, the UK might lose access to, say, the EU’s car markets. And whom would that hurt? The very people who would also be hurt by scrapping or watering down the Working Time Directive. That’s why her proposals would be a double whammy for working people – we would lose both our rights and our livelihoods – victims twice over.

Contrast that with the current situation. Under the EU’s single market rules, if the UK government took away our rights to paid holidays, rest breaks or a decent work-life balance, unions could take the government to the European Commission who could take what are known as infringement proceedings. Or we could take the government to court (ultimately the European Court of Justice, but there would be nothing to stop the UK courts holding the government to account.) In both cases, the government would have to back down and restore the rights, and in some cases pay compensation to the workers involved.

Under the current rules, workers would have their rights restored, they would keep their jobs, and they might get compensation. Under May’s proposal, they would not get their rights back and some people – maybe the workers most affected by the change, maybe people in other sectors of the economy – would lose their jobs as well.

That’s the sort of Brexit May and her government want. The TUC wants to make sure that working people don’t pay the price – and certainly don’t pay twice over – for Brexit.

Image credit: WPA Pool / Pool