Chuka Umunna: Any reversal of workers’ rights during Brexit would be a betrayal of the British people
European Union employment laws protect British workers from the consequences of Tory governments. It’s that simple. If you are an agency worker who gets treated equally to your full-time colleagues after being at your work place for twelve weeks; if you are a lorry driver glad of your right to take a rest from driving; or if the company you work for is taken over and you are worried about being made redundant, EU law helps protect your rights. And these protections will be compromised if Britain leaves the EU, which is why today, I am calling on Theresa May to stand up for working people and do something about it.
I’m the founder and chair of the Vote Leave Watch campaign. We’re dedicated to two aims – holding the Leave campaign politicians, especially those now in the government, to account for their promises, and pushing for the most progressive future relationship with Europe we can get. Protecting workers rights that are currently underpinned by EU law is consistent with the promises of Leave campaigners, and is crucial in keeping Britain a decent place for working people.
A whole panalopy of employment rights are enshrined both in EU and in UK law. But some, including those I mentioned earlier, are not. They are dependent on the European Communities Act 1972 – the Act of parliament that took us into the EU in the first place. Because this Act will have to be repealed for Britain to actually leave, they will cease to exist upon Brexit unless something is done about it. This is the stark conclusion of the independent House of Commons Library, which has just produced its first research on this topic since Britain voted to leave the EU.
These aren’t the only worries working people should have about Brexit. Outside the EU, British workers will no be able to longer shelter under the protective umbrella of the European Court of Justice, which has passed numerous judgments extending EU law to the benefit of British workers. For example, it has given British workers more holiday pay by factoring in non-guaranteed overtime. Rights like this could be overturned by our domestic courts once we leave the EU.
And even when protections EU laws give us at work are already mirrored by domestic UK legislation we should not be complacent. The current Conservative government have a recent, shameful history of opposing such laws. For example, Theresa May led the Tory charge against the Labour government’s 2010 Equalities Act, which enshrines protection against discrimination in the workplace, and equal pay for men and women. When Tories talk about cutting “red tape”, they are usually talking about cutting your rights in the workplace.
This, of course, was not the vision of Brexit painted by Vote Leave campaigners. Boris Johnson said during the campaign that he and his colleagues were “determined to protect the workers”. Chris Grayling, who ran Theresa May’s leadership campaign, was even clearer – “let me make it clear that I do not want to see social rights and protections diminished if we vote to leave the EU”, he said. Priti Patel, another pro-Leave cabinet minister, said that “this is categorically not about rolling back
workers’ rights” having been forced to do so when she suggested leaving the EU would give her government the ability to just that.
So the government needs to act, and fast. They must be faithful to the best interests of British workers, and the explicit promises of their own senior members, and do whatever it takes to prevent Brexit becoming a bonfire of employment rights. That’s why I’ve written to Theresa May today to demand the government takes action.
The Prime Minister must commit to three things. First, to pass new legislation before Britain leaves the EU to ensure that the rights enshrined in the European Communities Act remain in force. Second, to commission an audit of every instance in which the European Court of Justice has gone further in protecting workers than statue law itself, and commit to including these changes in legislation. And third, she must make clear her government’s absolute support for British legislation that benefits workers which her party opposed, such as the Equalities Act.
Anything less will be a betrayal of British working people, both those who vote to remain and those who voted to leave. This is especially true in light of the promises that were made to them by those, like Boris Johnson, who are now senior figures in the government.
The Prime Minister will no doubt be deluged with advice from right-wing think-tanks, academics and EU obsessives in her party urging her to take this opportunity to slash “red tape”. She must resist them. For the lorry driver, the agency worker, the employees of a business taken over by a rival and others, she must not leave them in the lurch, but act.