On Wednesday 6 March 2019, the government announced that following the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), it will ensure that the standard of workers’ rights will not be reduced, and that new EU laws will be considered for adoption into UK legislation.
In a report titled Protecting and enhancing worker rights after the UK withdrawal from the European Union, presented to Parliament by Greg Clark MP, secretary of state for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, the government announced that Parliament will be given the right, through the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, to consider and vote on adopting any future changes to EU law that strengthen workers’ rights or workplace health and safety standards.
To do this, Parliament will be provided with regular updates on EU legislative developments. In the process of preparing these reports, trade unions, businesses and relevant select committees will be consulted with.
Prime Minister Theresa May said: “We have as a country led the way in workers’ rights while maintaining a flexible labour market. The enormous success of our jobs market and the wealth of opportunities for workers across the nation have long been underpinned by the policies and standards that exceed the minimums set by the EU and that has been driven by successive governments of all parties.
“After Brexit, it should be for Parliament to decide what rules are most appropriate, rather than automatically accepting EU changes. When it comes to workers’ rights, this Parliament has set world-leading standards and will continue to do so in the future, taking its own decisions working closely with trade unions and businesses.”
Two EU directives, which will come into force following the UK’s projected leave date, will be the first to undergo this process. The Work Life Balance Directive introduces new rights for parents and carers, including two months of paid leave for each parent until a child is eight, and five days of leave for individuals caring for sick relatives. The Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive ensures that terms of employment are set from an individual’s first working day.
The government voted in favour of both directives in the European Council, and intends to put to parliament the option of adopting them into UK law.
This commitment to retaining workers’ rights post-Brexit is being marked as a continuation of the Good Work Plan, announced by Clark in December 2018. This aims to provide an upgrade to workers’ rights, including day-one statements setting out entitlements and pay, and ending the legal loophole that allows organisations to pay agency workers less than permanent staff.
On 6 March 2019, secondary legislation on these measures was debated in the House of Commons, including quadrupling maximum employment tribunal fines.
Clark said: “While the EU sets minimum requirements in many areas of workers’ rights, time and again the UK has led the way and chosen to exceed them. We are determined to maintain this record of leadership outside the EU.
“Yet it is a fact that some people felt that the rights of workers would not be adequately addressed, so as part of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill we will ensure Parliament is given a vote on the action government will take in response to changes to EU legislation on workers’ rights.”
Another aspect of the government’s stated commitment to sustaining and improving workers’ rights is the proposed consolidation of a range of enforcement bodies.
Currently, the national minimum and living wages are enforced by HM Revenue and Customs, exploitation and illegal activity is investigated by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, and agency workers’ rights are protected by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. The government aims to form a single labour market enforcement body to bring these powers together.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), said: “We welcome this commitment to ensure that UK employees are treated fairly at work and benefit from the highest standard of employment rights and protections. CIPD research has shown that employers are supportive of the existing employment rights framework, recognising that it strikes the right balance between worker protections and businesses’ need for flexibility.
“It’s vital that the existing rights framework isn’t watered down after the UK leaves the European Union, and we welcome the government’s commitment to work with businesses to shape future policy in this space.
“However, the challenge isn’t just about introducing new protections. Better, more joined-up enforcement of existing employment rights is crucial to creating fairer workplaces. The proposal for a single enforcement body should help to deliver this.”
Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary for trade union IWGB, said: “Brexit is fundamentally an anti-worker project, and the Prime Minister’s announcement today does nothing to change that.
“Saying Parliament can consider new worker rights is a non-offer and doesn’t come anywhere near the protection workers currently enjoy while we are in the EU. History will not judge kindly any Labour MP who gives today’s pathetic announcement as a reason for voting through the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement.”