A potential overhaul of workers’ rights post-Brexit is being discussed among Tory ministers, with limits on working hours possibly in the firing line, it has been revealed.
The Financial Times (FT) today (January 15) reported that a “package of deregulatory measures” is in the works by the business department with the approval of the prime minister, “according to people who are familiar with the matter”.
Standards set by the EU’s working time directive, which limits working weeks to an average of 48 hours, is one of the measures that may be scrapped, according to the FT.
The directive sets the maximum average working week at 48 hours, but also governs other areas of working time such as rest breaks. UK workers at present can choose to opt out of the 48-hour limit if, for example, they work overtime. But they cannot opt out of other measures in the directive, such a minimum number of paid holidays, or the rule that every worker must get 11 consecutive hours off in any 24-hour period.
Excluding overtime pay in holiday pay calculations is another proposal being mooted by ministers, which would be a huge financial hit for many workers. The government is reportedly also in talks about tweaking regulations around rest breaks.
If such proposals were adopted, and EU-derived working rights were watered down in the UK, the UK could face backlash from the EU in the form of tariffs. But under the terms of the current post-Brexit treaty with the EU, the EU would have to show that such watering down of UK workers’ rights had a ‘material impact’ on competition.
New business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was quick to dismiss the reports, noting on Twitter that “we are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights”.
“We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them,” he added.
But critics have pointed out that Kwarteng has a long ideological history in opposition to workers’ rights. He was the lead author, alongside other Tory politicians, of a controversial 2012 book called Britannia Unchained, which lamented the UK’s ‘bloated state’ and ‘excessive regulation’.
“The British are among the worst idlers in the world,” the book noted. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.”
A government spokesperson later refused to deny the reports that the government was drawing up plans to attack workers’ rights.
When asked if excluding overtime from holiday pay and tweaking rest break regulations would amount to a watering down of workers’ rights, the no. 10 spokesperson responded, “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals but the general principle remains the case that we’ve got one of the best workers’ rights records in the world, this government is not going to do anything to change that.”
Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband called the proposals “a disgrace”.
“This leak exposes the truth about the Government’s priorities, which are way out of step with the needs of workers and their families,” he tweeted.
“In the midst of the worst economic crisis in three centuries, ministers are preparing to tear up their promises to the British people and taking a sledgehammer to workers’ rights.
“The Government wants Britain to compete on the back of ordinary people losing their rights. Labour will fight tooth and nail against them. This is a fight about who we are a country and how we succeed.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner likewise slammed the proposals.
“Just 14 days post-Brexit and it’s workers’ rights in the spotlight for Tory ministers,” he said. ”No industrial strategy to recover and rebuild, no pay rises for nurses, but a bonfire of workers’ rights, tax breaks and free-ports for greedy corporates and the already obscenely rich.”
Turner added that even businesses themselves have no interest in rowing back on workers’ rights.
“Industry federations have confirmed that not only have they had no discussion with government on this attack, but that there is no appetite for this amongst their membership,” he said.
“Good businesses want a level playing field, not a race to the bottom. They need answers, support and investment from government to address difficult questions and meet the challenges of a recovery from Covid, future trade post-Brexit and the climate emergency. Of all the many problems good businesses now face, workers’ rights is not one of them.
“Make no mistake, this an ideological attack led by Tory politicians who have nothing but distain for working people.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said the plans were “a huge mistake”.
“There is immense loss, sadness and uncertainty in our country just now,” he said. “No decent government would pick this moment to launch an attack on the rights of its citizens.
“The people who have kept this country fed, safe and supported under unimaginable pressures deserve so much better than to be threatened with the loss of their basic rights?
“This is huge mistake by this government,” he noted. “This country has a proud history of standing up for rights, freedom and decency.
“In our time of need it has been working people who have stepped up and kept this country safe and supported. The vulnerable and low waged have paid the highest price in this pandemic. Respect these workers – do not take away their basic rights.”
By Hajera Blagg