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Women workers and the EU: The gains from EU membership and the risks of Brexit

Issue date

Introduction

“In all its activities, the [European] Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women.”

Article 8, Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

“The Court has repeatedly stated that respect for fundamental personal human rights is one of the principles of [European] Community law, the observance of which it has a duty to ensure. There can be no doubt that the elimination of discrimination based on sex forms part of those fundamental rights.”

European Court of Justice in Defrenne v Sabena 1978

Gender equality is a founding aim of the EU and it is recognised as a fundamental right in EU law. In the years since the UK joined the EU in 1973, working women have gained significantly from this strong underpinning to their rights.

EU law has:

  • Expanded the right to equal pay, strengthened protection from sex discrimination and improved remedies and access to justice for women who have been unfairly treated.
  • Strengthened protection for pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace and created new rights that have helped women balance work with care and encouraged men to play a greater role in family life too.
  • Benefited the many women who work part-time or on a temporary basis, improving their pay and conditions and giving them access to rights at work that they were previously disqualified from. 

If the UK votes to leave the EU, the workers’ rights that are currently guaranteed by EU law will be at risk. Equal pay, sex discrimination and maternity rights are unlikely to disappear but they could be eroded over time as the gains made over the last four decades are reversed. Rights of women part-time workers and temporary workers are under particular threat of repeal because those leading the campaign for a leave vote have directly attacked the directives that underpin them.

This report outlines 20 ways in which EU law has improved the rights of working women in the UK and it considers the threat to rights if there is a vote to leave.  

Download the full report in pdf format: