What will happen to workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain?

Great Britain is leaving the EU. There will be consequences on almost every level of our society, from the economy and our political commitments on the continent, to the various EU directives that may no longer form part of our domestic law.

One of the areas likely to be affected is workers’ rights – an issue we wrote about on the day of the EU referendum. Though it is difficult to know exactly what will happen in this central part of our working lives in the post-Brexit future, here we look at some of the possible implications moving forward.

Before the referendum, Trade Union leaders expressed dismay at the idea of a government uninhibited by EU basic minimums. These minimums guarantee maternity and paternity rights, equal treatment for full-time, part-time and agency workers, and the right to paid leave, among others. They predicted that, in the wake of a Leave vote, a Conservative government would remove these rights which are enshrined in European law.

This fear does not seem misplaced. Like their plans to renounce the Human Rights Act, the government has previously tried to implement legislation that would ‘cripple workers’ rights to take strike action’ and remove the Working Time Directive which limits the working week to a maximum of 48 hours on average. But they were prevented from doing so by the EU. Now Britain has left, these efforts could be back on the table, with the one guaranteed protection for workers’ rights – the EU – taken out of the equation.

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EU membership ensures the UK has, among other things, a minimum level of protection around health and safety in the workplace, prevention of discrimination, equal opportunities, and labour laws protecting part-time workers and young people. Already the UK was one of the least regulated EU members, with workers having the right to opt out of the Working Time Directive, fewer protections for agency workers and weaker employment protection regulating dismissals.

As things currently stand, the UK government complies with or exceeds these minimums, but, now they are no longer in place as EU law, they can, and may well be amended or repealed. If the Conservative Party shifts its political position with a change of leadership, further to the right perhaps, Jason Heyes, Professor of Employment Relations at the University of Sheffield, says ‘there would be little to prevent a far more substantial attack on employment rights’.

The crucial fact to understand is that, without any precedent or plan for exiting the EU, no one knows for sure what will happen. The fear is, however, that a UK government without the guaranteed minimum rights and the checks and balances the EU offers would be free to re-legislate. Based on previously declared intentions and the negative prospects from Trade Unions, the future is far from certain and far from bright when it comes to workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain.

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Posted on 29th June 2016 in Culture&Insight
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