This paper seeks to provide a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the UK’s membership of the European Union on employment rights. It considers in turn each of the areas covered by EU legislation and the threat to workers’ rights if these measures were not in place. It also gives consideration to the potential for future EU developments which could bring increased employment protections to UK workers.
Since the mid-1970s, the European Union has played an important role in protecting working people from exploitation and combating discrimination. These EU rights have provided an important counter-balance against pressure for the UK to adopt a US-style hire-and-fire culture where there is an absence of statutory employment rights.
There has been some recent concern that the European Commission’s social policy agenda has become increasingly restricted. For example, recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) cases have limited the ability of unions to organise industrial action in cross-border disputes, and in some Eurozone countries the Commission has actively undermined sector-wide collective bargaining agreements.
However, set against these concerns are the significant employment rights gains that continue to accrue to UK workers as a result of our EU membership. These are wide ranging in scope, including access to paid annual holidays, improved health and safety protection, rights to unpaid parental leave, rights to time off work for urgent family reasons, equal treatment rights for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers, rights for outsourced workers, and rights for workers’ representatives to receive information and be consulted, particularly in the context of restructuring.
There are also areas where European policy makers are currently considering future positive developments which could bring employment protection gains for UK workers. Measures could include extending the right to a written statement of terms and conditions to all workers (including those on zero-hours contracts), improved work-life balance rights and improved rights for posted workers. UK unions continue to work through European structures with European partners to advance and extend this agenda.