Labour movement vows to fight Tory plans to rip up workers’ rights

Sienna Rodgers

The Labour Party and trade unions have come out today declaring that they will fight reported Conservative government plans to rip up UK workers’ rights now that the Brexit transition period has ended.

The Financial Times has reported that a proposed package of deregulatory measures likely to please many Tory MPs is being put together by the Department for Business, though has not yet been approved by ministers.

It includes ending the 48-hour working week, “tweaking” rights to rest breaks at work, not including overtime pay in holiday pay entitlement calculations and scrapping the need for businesses to log detailed daily reporting of working hours.

Saying “the mask has slipped” and vowing to “fight tooth and nail” against the proposals, Labour has asked the government to rule out moves that would row back on these specific protections from which UK employees currently benefit.

“Crucially, while the government speaks in platitudes, there has been no real denial that the specific proposals reported are on the table,” Ed Miliband said. He added that the policies “should not even be up for discussion”.

“The pandemic has imposed huge hardship on workers and families in our country. We owe it to them to build a better, and more secure future for Britain. The way to do that is not to take a wrecking ball to their hard-won rights, but to build on them.”

The Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady highlighted that the Tories had promised in the 2019 general election to implement “the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation”.

She said: “The government promised that it would strengthen workers’ rights – not weaken them. Working-class voters rely on their precious paid holiday, and safety measures like rest breaks and limits on working time.

“Rather than threatening hard-won rights, the Prime Minister should make good on his promises to his voters. And the best way to do that is to bring forward the long-awaited employment bill, to make sure everyone is treated fairly at work.”

Unite’s Len McCluskey also joined the criticism, saying: “There is immense loss, sadness and uncertainty in our country just now. 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.”

GMB acting general secretary Warren Kenny described the changes under consideration as “unforgivable” and pointed out: “If ministers are serious about building back better, then that means levelling up on rights at work.”

Progressive think tank IPPR has called attention its analysis of the Brexit trade deal last month, which warned that the agreement gave ministers “considerable scope to roll back workers’ rights and environmental protections”.

IPPR’s Marley Morris has stressed that the measures reported by the FT “would risk retaliation from the EU for breaking the ‘level playing field’ commitments in the UK-EU trade agreement” – including, potentially, tariffs on UK exports.

“While the agreement does not prevent reductions in labour standards in all instances, it does so where it can be proved that there is an impact on trade or investment between the UK and the EU. This flagrant act of deregulation could meet that test.”

Labour shadow cabinet members Ed Miliband and Andy McDonald have written to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to seek reassurances that he will not adopt the proposals and to apply pressure on the government.

The opposition party is emphasising that scrapping the 48-hour working week cap “could seriously risk the safety of key workers including hauliers and delivery drivers” as well as NHS staff who could feel pressured to agree to excessive hours.

Below is the full text of Labour’s letter to Kwasi Kwarteng.

Dear Kwasi,

Workers’ rights regulation

A report in today’s Financial Times states that the government plans to “rip up” worker protections, including the 48-hour week, as part of an overhaul of UK labour markets. It has been reported that the package of measures is being put together by your department.

Ministers have repeatedly promised that there would be no dismantling of workers’ rights after leaving the EU and Labour will hold them to that promise. We note your response to the piece on social media on 14 January, in which you reiterate this promise and say the Government is “not going to lower the standard of workers’ rights” and further “We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them”.

In that case, it should be straightforward for you to ease the anxiety that many workers will be feeling as they read about your plans and specifically rule out the proposals to erode workers’ rights on which the FT says your department plans to consult.

We would therefore appreciate your response to the specific questions below to provide reassurance to workers and their families across the country.

  1. Will you rule out “rowing back” on the 48-hour weekly working limit which keeps workers and citizens safe in key professions?
  2. Will you rule out “rowing back” on the inclusion of voluntary overtime in holiday pay entitlement?
  3. Will you rule out “rowing back” on other changes which might undermine rights to holiday pay?
  4. Will you rule out “rowing back” on any changes to legal rights to breaks at work?
  5. Will you confirm whether there will be a consultation on changes to any workers’ rights derived from the Working Time Directive; and if so when this consultation will be published?

Businesses and workers across the country have faced one of the most difficult periods of their life. Many businesses are still deeply anxious about surviving the crisis and many workers are struggling to make ends meet and worried about their health too. Stripping back workers’ rights would reduce living standards and damage our economy.

We hope you agree that the government’s priorities must be focused on rolling out the vaccine, securing the economy, protecting jobs and livelihoods, and supporting the safety of workers – not taking a wrecking ball to workers’ rights.

Given the worry this will cause people across the country, we request an urgent response.

Yours sincerely,

Ed Miliband MP, Shadow Business Secretary
Andy McDonald MP, Shadow Employment Rights Secretary

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