Issue date
10 Sep 2017

The TUC respects the decision taken in the 2016 referendum that the UK should leave the EU. As we approach Brexit, the TUC is determined that working people's rights, jobs and livelihoods must be protected. Working people and our communities must not pay a price for Brexit.

The government triggered Article 50 in March 2017, setting a deadline for leaving the EU of 27 March 2019. Yet since the June 2016 referendum, ministers have made little progress in proposing the practical details of a Brexit settlement. Despite putting intense pressure on civil servants working with fewer resources and being asked to do ever more, the government still seems fundamentally underprepared for the negotiations, with no clear objective other than leaving the EU. Key issues including the future of workers’ rights, the status of EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU, the Northern Ireland border, on-going access to European markets and the future of British manufacturing, services and finance are still undecided.

We need a new deal for workers in Britain now and the TUC is committed to campaigning hard for that but we know that Brexit could have a profound impact on the jobs, rights and livelihoods of our members. This General Council statement sets out the TUC’s view about how to secure a Brexit that works for working people.

Working people must come first and unions must have a voice in the negotiations

Throughout the referendum campaign and since, the TUC has spoken only in the interests of working people. The trade union movement's leadership and role is often better understood and appreciated by governments in the rest of the EU than it is at home. Trade unions have a legitimate voice, knowledge and unparalleled experience on all matters affecting the millions of workers we represent and we demand a seat, alongside those representing corporate interests, at the table when the future of work and the economy is negotiated.

Workers’ rights must be protected and we must not fall behind the rest of Europe

At the top of our agenda is protecting and protecting jobs and workers’ rights, now and into the future. Many leave-backing Conservatives and employers are straining at the leash to attack workers’ rights fought for and won over decades by unions and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). Particularly at risk are equal pay and a wide range of many other important equality measures, working time rules, health and safety regulations, rights to information and consultation, and fairness for part-time, temporary and agency workers.

As well as defending the rights we currently enjoy under EU law, British workers’ rights must not fall behind workers’ rights in the rest of Europe. Britain’s deal with the EU must include a level playing field for workers’ rights to stop unfair competition and ensure good employers are not undercut by the bad. The UK must therefore either match or exceed any new rights won by workers across the EU, and judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) that protect or enhance workers’ rights should continue to apply to UK workers and a level playing field on workers’ rights must be a condition of any future relationship with the EU. The proposed European Pillar of Social Rights is a long overdue step forward and although we share the concern of the ETUC that it does not go far enough, we are clear that British workers must also benefit from any resulting extension of rights.

The government may have promised to “protect and enhance” workers' rights, but its actions so far fall short. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill now before Parliament leaves ministers free to undermine or even remove rights without parliamentary scrutiny. It provides no guarantees to prevent future governments of the Supreme Court undermining existing workers’ rights.

The TUC will seek to improve the safeguards for workplace rights, but we do not believe it will be possible to achieve all we seek through legislation. Right-wing deregulators will not be deterred by the inadequate safeguards of the bill or by the promises of a significantly weakened prime minister. We demand instead a specific deal with the EU as an integral part of any Brexit deal that secures all current workplace rights and maintains a level playing field between the UK and the EU on workplace rights into the future.

The government must also make existing rights easier to enforce, including giving rights for unions to access workplaces to represent workers and through sectoral, company and workplace level collective bargaining. And they must develop a new agenda that addresses the changing world of work, ending the exploitation of migrant workers and the undercutting of existing terms and conditions, banning exploitative zero-hours contracts, regulating the gig economy and adding further health and safety protections.

Jobs, investment and livelihoods must be protected through tariff-free, barrier-free trade with Europe

A prosperous UK needs tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade in goods and services with the rest of Europe. EU trade accounts for about half of all British exports; is vital to the employment of over three million workers either directly or indirectly; and provides good jobs with higher wages, training opportunities and skill levels than average. Further it is essential that the UK retain its active membership of key cross border agencies, initiatives and sector level regulatory forums such as open skies, Erasmus, research and development programmes, and Euratom which provide positive benefits to our economy.

Immediately after the referendum, the TUC called for actions to address the immediate effects of the vote, such as propping up the pound, a further boost to quantitative easing, and urgent government announcements on infrastructure developments like a third runway at Heathrow, HS2 and the Hinckley Point nuclear power plant. The fact that the government took all these steps – albeit more slowly and not as vigorously as the TUC advocated – produced a temporary support for the British economy which has led many, mistakenly, to suggest that the economic impact of the referendum has not been as bad as predicted.

However, since the start of 2017, the TUC has been alarmed that industrial investment has declined sharply. Despite the fall in the value of the pound, the UK’s trade deficit has widened. Growth has slowed, and with higher prices and wage stagnation reducing demand, growth now relies almost wholly on consumer borrowing, leading to renewed worries about household debt. Nevertheless, we are conscious that some employers are using Brexit as an excuse to worsen working people’s terms and conditions, just as some attempted to do during the recession, and we will strongly resist any such opportunism.

In the Brexit negotiations, the UK must prioritise preserving good jobs. And at home, the government must set out a more active industrial and fiscal strategy including public investment in infrastructure and skills, an end to cuts in public services and wages, along with reversing the worst examples of privatisation and out-sourcing of public services. The government must take steps to boost pay across both the public and private sectors, recognising and promoting collective bargaining’s role in ending growing levels of inequality. Britain needs a pay rise!

The government must publish its confidential sector-specific Brexit impact assessments and should consult not just businesses but unions on the impact of Brexit both across the economy and especially in the industries most likely to be affected by Brexit such as manufacturing, services, food production, higher education, health and social care, hospitality and finance.

Protecting jobs, rights and livelihoods means that the UK must keep our options open

The slow pace of the Brexit negotiations and the government’s self-imposed red lines could lead to the UK facing a cliff-edge exit from the EU. This would have a catastrophic impact on rights, jobs and household incomes. The UK should seek a transitional period after leaving the EU in March 2019. This is a pragmatic solution, and recognises that the government’s criminal lack of preparation means that a good Brexit deal cannot be achieved by March 2019. The simplest option to minimise disruption across all sectors of the economy, is for the current arrangements to continue with the UK remaining a member of the single market and customs union during the transition period.

This will protect tariff-free, barrier-free frictionless trade with the EU as well as protecting workers’ existing rights and making sure the UK benefits from any further EU rights introduced during this period.

As we enter negotiations for a long-term settlement outside the EU, we believe in keeping all options on the table and ruling nothing out. Any deal must be realistic and achievable through positive, constructive but tough negotiations with the EU. Our objectives for that long-term deal will continue to be:

  • maintaining workers’ existing rights and establishing a level playing field so that British workers’ rights do not fall behind those of other European workers,
  • preserving tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade with the rest of Europe to protect jobs, and
  • ensuring that trade and livelihoods in Gibraltar and Ireland are protected.

We are willing to consider any proposals that would meet those tests, including negotiating a new single market relationship, or working up from a bespoke trade deal. At present we should not rule out unrestricted access to the single market through continued membership outside the EU as this meets our tests. Several other countries are outside the EU but inside the single market and if the outcome of negotiations with the EU was for the UK to stay in the single market in the longer-term, the TUC would continue to push, especially through the ETUC, for reforms so that the single market better serves working people’s needs.

We are opposed to any deal for a long-term relationship with the EU that focuses narrowly on trade, without a strong social dimension. All trade deals that cover the UK must provide for enhanced labour rights and protection for public services. We reject a vision of free trade that does not include fair trade, deregulates employment, food, consumer and environmental standards; offers up public services like the NHS to rapacious multinational companies; and undermines UK sovereignty by giving foreign investors privileged rights to sue democratically-elected governments for acting in the interests of working people. We reject corporate focused trade deals such as those under discussion in the TTIP and CETA negotiations and will reject any similar deals currently under discussion between the government and other governments such as the US.

We must manage migration better by preventing exploitation and undercutting and by reversing cuts

After Brexit, the trade union movement’s priority is to secure fair and decent treatment for everyone, wherever they are from, in all parts of the UK. We reject the scapegoating of migrants by unscrupulous politicians and media owners. Migrant workers are not responsible for low pay and lousy treatment, bad employers are. Migrant workers heal the sick, teach children, drive buses, produce food and sweep the streets, and we are proud of the role they have and continue to play in a diverse modern Britain. The government must tackle the exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers and the undercutting of local labour markets through measures to strengthen and enforce labour regulation and extending collective agreements between unions and employers to workplaces especially those with significant employment of migrants. The government should move immediately to strengthen union rights to organise, extend collective bargaining and establish modern wages councils, with stronger enforcement. Further, government must address the genuine concerns of working people about the impacts of migration on stretched public services, transport and housing.

Too many seek to sow division over the capacity and quality of public services, arguing that migrants are to blame. They aren’t: politicians who have imposed savage cuts are. The UK needs an end to cuts and out-sourcing in education, health and other public services; a well-deserved pay rise for public servants; and a major programme of council house building. And the government should set up a much-expanded migration impacts fund to target money to communities where the pace of change has been fastest, to fund good services and tackle community tensions.

There are many different ways countries in the EU have interpreted free movement. The approach taken in the UK has allowed bad employers to profit whilst letting public services decline. The UK should look at other EU countries’ models of free movement, and should use all the domestic powers at its disposal to manage the impact of migration including by using public procurement to promote job and apprenticeship opportunities for local people, as secured by the TUC and unions through framework agreements such as those with London 2012, Terminal 5 and HS2.

It is not racist to be concerned about the effects of immigration in a deregulated labour market and in communities suffering the effects of deindustrialisation and cuts in public spending. The UK should urgently adopt tough measures to prevent bad bosses exploiting migrant workers and undercutting local labour markets. Loopholes in the posted workers and temporary and agency worker directives, which allow abuses, must be closed. The government should fiercely enforce the payment of the national minimum wage and introduce a real living wage and other rights at work. And the government should immediately give unions the right to enter workplaces and extend collective bargaining to low wage sectors, to prevent a race to the bottom in wages and terms and conditions.

The increase in racially-motivated attacks which followed the referendum result was shocking and disgraceful. It targeted nationals from other EU countries and the black and minority ethnic community. The actions of the far right and promotion of racist activity on our streets by fascist elements is far from under control and we will continue to promote action in workplaces, communities and at national level to oppose racist discrimination, harassment and violence. Unions have provided support and representation to their members in Britain and around Europe who are worried about their futures, and many of whom have built lives and families in their local community.

Any final settlement must give certainty to EU nationals living in the UK, and UK nationals living in the EU – principally, the right to remain and to family reunion. The proposals put forward by the EU and the British government fall far short of what is needed. We will continue to press for all workers here and UK workers in the rest of the EU to have the same rights as they did before the referendum.

There must be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland

Together with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the TUC is particularly concerned about the future of relations, and especially the border, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The peace process – which trade unionists did so much to bring about – needs protection. Any return to a border for trade or people would have worrying consequences. The economy on both sides of the border faces severe threats as a result of Brexit. But all we have heard so far is good intentions and contradictory proposals. The people of Northern Ireland – as well as those of Scotland, Wales, Gibraltar, London and each of the English regions – need to have a voice and a seat at the table when negotiations are done in their name.

We need a people's Europe not a bosses' Europe

Since the referendum, the TUC and the ETUC have worked together, developing a common position and common priorities. We will continue to work with the ETUC and its members across Europe to secure support for those priorities among European governments and institutions. European trade unionists support what we are trying to achieve, not least because workers in the rest of Europe would also suffer if Britain became a deregulated tax haven on the edge of the EU.

Because it is in the interests of working people everywhere that the European social model is defended and revitalised and because all the evidence shows that countries where working people have stronger rights and a stronger voice do better in terms of growth, equality and cohesion, workers in Britain would benefit from having the same rights as workers in the rest of Europe. And, like the ETUC, the TUC wants the EU to change course and focus on achieving a new deal for working people.

The EU must adopt and build on the European Pillar of Social Rights, promote collective bargaining and deliver pay rises for working people across Europe. It must reverse the austerity policies of the European Central Bank and the European semester process that did so much damage to countries like Greece, Ireland, Spain and Eastern Europe. The EU should promote sustainable growth in poorer parts of Europe, reducing the need for people to abandon their homes and move across the continent to find decent work. It needs to take a firmer line on tax evasion and responsible business conduct, building on action against companies like Apple and Google. Finally, the EU needs to make absolutely clear that state aid, control and ownership are appropriate ways of achieving social objectives, as well as promoting quality public services and the use of progressive public procurement policies. The EU’s promotion of liberalisation and competition, aided and abetted by British governments, has done huge damage to the services working people rely on, widened inequality by enriching private corporations and brought greater insecurity and lower pay to working people. We reject the forced liberalisation of public services.

In short, we need a people's Europe, not a bosses' Europe. The EU needs to provide training, opportunity and decent work for everyone, especially young people. It should protect people against the harm done by uncontrolled globalisation and be a force for peace and progress around the world, promoting a different model to both America and China.

Conclusion

The General Council now seeks the agreement of Congress for a Brexit programme of work which puts workers’ jobs and rights first, promotes an economy that works for people and not just business, and seeks justice and respect for everyone living and working in the UK, wherever they come from. We call on all political parties to support such an approach in the Brexit negotiations and reaffirm our solidarity with trade unionists across Europe.