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Will Brexit affect workers’ rights?

Unite legal department’s Alys Cunningham explains
Alys Cunningham, Friday, July 1st, 2016

Most UK employment rights are guaranteed and therefore protected by EU law, which means the Government cannot remove or reduce those rights whilst we are part of the EU.


Holiday pay and working time rights, anti-discrimination laws, parental leave, part-time, fixed-term and agency worker rights and laws protecting employment where businesses transfer – to name but a few.


The referendum result does not change this immediately and what happens next depends on what the government does.


At present workers’ rights are exactly the same as they were before the vote; employers have to follow them and courts have to enforce them – which for a worker is a very good thing.


The government will need to trigger Article 50 and it is then likely to be two years, may be more, before the UK formally leaves the EU and all member states have to agree how this is done.


After formally leaving the EU, the government would then have the power to reduce or remove employment rights that were otherwise protected European Law. I’m hopeful that even the current government would not be stupid enough to attempt to remove all employment rights – that would be political suicide.


But there are some employment laws, which the Tories undoubtedly have their eye on and by removing the EU protection it would make it possible for them to change or remove these. What they refer to as “removing red tape”, in effect means workers’ rights.


In recent years, the non-Labour governments have already attacked employment rights that did not have EU protection – they doubled the time you have to work for an employer to have protection from being unfairly dismissed to two years and introduced a new limit on compensation, which impacts those on low incomes the most.


In 2013 they introduced employment tribunal fees of £1,200 to bring most employment claims, which resulted in a 70 per cent reduction in employment tribunal claims.


On June 20 a parliamentary committee report on employment tribunal fees was published which confirmed fees have had a significant adverse impact on access to justice and the level of fees should be substantially reduced.


Because of the Brexit coverage the report did not make any headlines and is now unlikely to prompt any change. The government took part in the case I ran for Unite members in 2014 which established that overtime should be included in holiday pay under EU law – they argued that workers should get basic pay only and following the court’s decision they passed laws to limit wages and holiday pay claims to two years.


It is therefore more important now than ever that workers unite to protect their employment rights, because as a collective we have power.


As well as the support, advice and protection that trade unions offer members with individual employment problems; having a collective voice and power has never been more important if we are to protect workers’ rights. If you’re not in a union, now really is the time to join one!



This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, July 1


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