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Protecting workers’ rights using the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement - full report

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Key findings

After four long years of Brexit negotiations, in December 2020 the UK and EU signed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).  Over that time, unions in the UK and Europe lobbied hard for an agreement that would protect jobs and rights for all working people.

We secured a key principle in the agreement: that neither the UK or EU countries should lower standards on workers’ rights. This was called the ‘Level Playing Field’ commitment.  The TCA also contains an enforcement mechanism - not found in any trade deal before. If either the UK or the EU worsen workers’ rights, and a potential impact on trade can be proven, then they can face penalties. 

The TUC commissioned an academic report from Professor Federico Ortino (King's College London) which shows that, despite significant limitations, the TCA contains important provisions that we can use to protect workers’ rights, including:

  • commitments to at least maintain standards of rights in place when the UK-EU agreement was signed (‘non regression’)
  • the potential to bring a case for even a single breach of non-regression, if this can be proved to have an impact on trade or investment
  • commitments to ‘fundamental rights at work’ which are grounded in the International Labour Organisation core conventions; and
  • commitments to occupational health and safety standards; fair working conditions and employment standards; information and consultation rights at company level; and restructuring of undertakings protections

As this report makes clear, trade unions can raise complaints if UK workers’ rights are attacked. As well as building our power in the workplace and using our informal influence on governments and European institutions, we can use formal mechanisms such as the Domestic Advisory Groups and the EU Single Entry point.

This matters because we have heard repeated calls from some UK ministers to consider downgrading rights as a ‘dividend’ to leaving the European Union. On 9 December 2021, Lord Frost, at that point the minister responsible for the TCA, announced plans for a government review of EU retained law shortly after having commented in a speech ‘if after Brexit all we do is import the European social model we will not succeed.’  In the last year, the UK government has also consulted on proposals to weaken protections both on personal data and set out a comprehensive new approach to regulation and enforcement which would reduce both existing rights and effective enforcement.

And we can never forget that in the past, several members of the current UK Cabinet, including the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, co-authored the notorious pamphlet Britannia Unchained. That advocated slashing workers’ rights derived from the EU, including vital protections such as paid holidays and maximum working hours.

Meanwhile, workers’ rights in the UK already risk falling behind those in the EU. A range of new rights are in the EU pipeline, including:

  • the work life balance directive which would improve paternity and parental leave rights;
  • the transparent and predictable working conditions directive which would improve conditions for workers carrying out insecure work with requirements for employers to confirm a guaranteed number of paid hours and other information obligations, as well as training benefits and other measures to provide more security for workers; and
  • the platform workers directive which would ensure that many platform companies have all the responsibilities of an employer towards their workers and provide important protections against algorithmic management, including more transparency.

Using the TCA is one way trade unions can try to prevent attempts to use Brexit as a means to reduce our hard-won rights.

But when the TCA comes up for review in 2026 there are important ways the TCA must be strengthened.  This study presents some important changes that must be made: 

  • give trade unions the power to bring cases when our rights are attacked;
  • remove the high bar requiring proof that violations of Level Playing Field commitment affect trade; and
  • oblige the UK to at least keep up with improvements in EU standards of rights

[1] Hansard (2021). ‘Brexit opportunities: review of EU retained law’, online at:

[2] Frost, D. (2021). ‘If we can’t persuade people that freedom is the best way forward, we lose’, CapX, online at:

[3] UK government (2021). ‘DCMS data reform consultation’, online at:

[4] UK government (2021). ‘Reforming the framework for better regulation’, online at:

[5] O’Grady, F. (2021). ‘Post-Brexit review of workers rights must not rip up hard won protections in a race to the bottom’, online at:

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