Post-Brexit review of workers' rights must not rip-up hard-won protections in a race to the bottom
We can’t afford for ministers to make the same mistakes of the last decade by allowing insecure, bad jobs to spring up in the place of good ones because of deregulation, writes Frances O'Grady. | PA Images
Government must protect and enhance current workplace rights guaranteed by the EU. Current proposals would weaken labour rights and ordinary working families will pay the price.
This government has made a habit out of publicly promising to protect and enhance workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won the 2019 election having made this promise. And it’s a promise his party has made time and time again since.
Yet reports in last week’s Financial Times suggest hard-won protections – relied on by workers for years – are on the line. According to the leak, key standards derived from EU law such as paid holiday, safety measures like rest breaks, and limits on working time are all at risk.
These are all fundamental protections – not a nice-to-have. If the government follows through with these proposals, ordinary working families will pay the price.
The business secretary was quick to refute the story and once again, reiterate government’s well-worn commitment to protecting and enhancing workers’ rights. But he has since confirmed the existence of the review into regulations. And the proposals will seem eerily familiar to those who have read the notorious anti-worker book, Britannia Unchained, which several cabinet members co-authored.
Instead of threatening hard-won rights, ministers must get on with bringing forward the employment bill to end exploitative working practices
What is clear, is that there’s little public appetite for weakening labour rights. Our post-election poll in 2019 showed nearly three-quarters of voters said the government must protect and enhance current workplace rights guaranteed by the EU, like paid holidays and rights for temporary and agency workers. And the figure was eight in ten for those who switched from Labour to Conservative.
And this pandemic has highlighted just how important these rights are for low-paid and vulnerable workers.
We are going through the worst crisis in decades. Many insecure workers, including care workers, delivery drivers and shop staff, have helped to keep the country going. But the limited rights these vulnerable key workers have often stem from EU law – the very rules this Conservative government is rumoured to want to rip up. That can’t be right.
Some 3.6 million people, or one worker in nine, were in insecure work ahead of the coronavirus outbreak. Nonetheless the government, having promised “the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation”, has yet to publish the long-awaited employment bill, which is its key opportunity to tackle the scourge of precarious work.
It has now been over a year since the bill was first announced in the Queen’s speech. Since then, there has been nothing but deafening silence.
Instead of threatening hard-won rights, ministers must get on with bringing forward the employment bill to end exploitative working practices like zero hours contracts and boost rights and pay.
The government should get its priorities straight. The country is facing one of the worst recessions in generations. We can’t afford for ministers to make the same mistakes of the last decade by allowing insecure, bad jobs to spring up in the place of good ones because of deregulation.
Now is the time to shape the type of country we want to live in. There is an opportunity to rebuild our economy for the better, with decent work and fair pay at its heart.
The choice is clear. It’s vital we take the right path – to higher standards, better jobs and fair pay – not a race to the bottom in a deregulated, low-wage Britain.
Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).