After Brexit – Where now on health and safety and employment rights?
Before the referendum the TUC gave a strong warning that the rights of workers to a safe workplace could be threatened by a vote to leave the EU, as could many employment rights. Now that that has happened what is likely to happen?
The short answer is that we do not know. That does not mean that we were “crying wolf”. There is a real and serious danger that the final outcome could mean that we will lose much of the protection that EU membership has given us, but much will depend on the outcome of the negotiations that are will take place between Britain and the EU.
The negotiations on what kind of post-Brexit arrangements will apply to Britain have not even started, and may not begin for some time. There will be up to two years from the time that Britain gives notice to quit before we formally leave and that may not happen until a new Prime Minister is in place. Even then, the two years can be extended by negotiation and also of course there might be a General Election which could delay things even further. That means at least two years of negotiations, and possibly longer, but in the meanwhile all European directives and obligations continue to apply.
A lot of Conservatives are saying that they want access to the single market but without the requirement to agree to EU employment and safety standards. In other words they want to be able to trade with the EU on equal terms, but undercut it on things like employment rights, wages, health and safety, equality etc.
If the UK were to leave the EU and reach an agreement whereby they were not covered by European regulations on issues such as health and safety then they will be able to reduce standards to whatever they want. The only restrictions will be international conventions, but the Government, in most cases, has the right to opt in or out of them. The Government will also be able to have standards well above those of the EU, but of course they have that right at the moment and certainly have been pretty reluctant to use them
So far the EU have been quite clear. Access to the internal market means playing by the rules and there is certainly not going to be an exception for the UK. That is also the very strong position of European Trade Unionists. Britain cannot have a system which gives equal treatment to bankers, manufacturers and those providing services, while workers are denied the same rights.
For the TUC, our priority is to make sure that workers do not pay the price of leaving the EU and my colleague, Owen Tudor, has produced an excellent blog covering the main issues.
During the campaign both the remain and the Brexit side said that they wanted to defend workers’ rights. Despite that, there could still be a lot of rhetoric from the Government, both during the leadership campaign and during the negotiations, that we need to “free Britain from EU regulation”. That means to cut our rights. We need a commitment from the Government, and from the candidates for the leader of the Conservative party, that they will stick to the promises made during the campaign. The TUC has launched a petition demanding that MPs “Commit publicly that you will not vote for any reduction in British workers’ rights, or restrict their applicability, when interpreting EU law into post-Brexit UK law.” Please sign and circulate it.