The EU Referendum: what are the implications for workers’ rights?

A cornerstone of the argument for voting to Remain in the European Union today is the belief that UK membership of the EU guarantees and protects workers’ rights. The counterclaim, from the Leave campaign, contends the exact reverse – that the UK goes beyond the EU prescribed minimums and either ensured certain rights before joining the EU or protects them through independent legislation.

But what are the facts behind the rhetoric – what does the EU do for workers, and what effect will a vote to leave have?

The general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Frances O’Grady, made a warning earlier this year that sets out the Remain argument for workers quite clearly. She said: “Working people have a huge stake in the referendum because workers’ rights are on the line.

“It’s the EU that guarantees workers their rights to paid holidays, parental leave, equal treatment for part-timers and much more. These rights can’t be taken for granted. There are no guarantees that any government will keep them if the UK leaves the EU. And without the back-up of EU laws, unscrupulous employers will have free rein to cut many of the workers’ hard-won benefits and protections.”

And, in addition to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s assertions that leaving the EU would reduce or even remove these rights, ten of the UK’s trade union leaders wrote a letter to The Guardian earlier this month underlining the importance of EU membership for UK workers moving forward.

Perhaps predictably, this letter was contradicted in a reply from MPs and trade unionists in favour of leaving the EU. They claim that paternity leave is enshrined in UK, not EU, law, that maternity leave in the UK substantially exceeds the EU guaranteed minimum and that equal pay was a UK right before Great Britain became a member of the EU in 1973. On the basis of this history, the implication is that UK governments and employers of the future would continue to protect, and even increase, workers’ rights moving forward.

Amid this confusion in the days and hours before the referendum, what is the truth when it comes to workers’ rights and the EU?

It is true that the EU ensures a base minimum of rights for employees; from health and safety in the workplace and prevention of discrimination to equal opportunities and labour laws protecting part-time workers and young people. The EU Commission sets out explicitly that these are EU directives that must be made a part of the legislation in individual member countries, including the UK.

Just this year, for example, the EU heard from the Foundation for Living and Working Conditions about how to improve standards of living, working conditions and making work sustainable for people living in the EU. It also formed a directive requiring employers to consult staff representatives in cases of collective redundancies and setting out what information they must provide, and they instructed member governments to ratify legislation which prevents forced labour by the end of 2016.

And these rights have been put in place in the UK. Workers are guaranteed the National Minimum Wage, the statutory minimum level of paid holiday, rest breaks, protection against discrimination, fair treatment of part-time workers and many other areas based in UK law. UK workers are protected by laws such as the Employment Rights Act (1996) and the Equality Act (2010), passed by the British government both as a result of EU directives and treaties and independent, UK-sourced law.

A controversial example of this process in action is the Working Time Directive – coming from the EU and implemented by the UK – which governs the number of hours an employee can be asked to work. Right now, the average weekly working time, including overtime, cannot exceed 48 hours. However, some voices of the Leave campaign would seek to amend this law, limiting its application.

And this is where it becomes both confusing and vastly important – what will happen post-Brexit, if that is the decision of the British public? The claims oppose each other – the Remain camp argue that workers’ rights would be damaged, the Leave camp say they would continue to be protected. So who should you believe?

According to BBC Reality Check, the impact of leaving the EU on workers’ rights would very much depend on what legislation future UK governments decide to keep, amend, throw out, or introduce – a matter that is, right now, unknown.

The reality is that, upon leaving the EU, the UK government would no longer be obligated to implement EU directives, but it also has its own laws affecting workers that may well continue as they are. For instance, pre-existing and independent laws protecting rights like annual leave could be unaffected, and EU-sourced legislation, such as women’s rights in the workplace, could be under threat. Put simply, there are no direct answers on which workers’ rights will be maintained and which will be scrapped – these rights, many of which are underscored by or have come directly from the EU, are up in the air in the unknown quantity of a post-referendum future.

The truth behind the rhetoric is, therefore, this: The EU both introduces and underpins many UK workers’ rights, and the UK government both exceeds the minimum EU guarantees and has independent laws guaranteeing extra rights for workers that are not covered by the EU. What all this means after Thursday depends on several variables including future governments and their decisions when it comes to existing and new laws affecting workers’ rights. It is impossible to predict what will happen, but the EU Referendum will certainly have an impact, one way or the other.

Posted on 23rd June 2016 in Culture&Insight
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