The potential consequences of Brexit for UK employment rights was hotly debated during the referendum campaign. Some fear that a bonfire will be lit under workers’ rights if the UK leaves the European Union. This article, however, argues that the government is likely to adopt a more cautious approach.
The potential consequences of Brexit for UK employment rights was a prominent issue in the debate that preceded the referendum. Many employment entitlements are underpinned by European Directives that establish a basic floor of rights for all EU and EEA member countries. The Directives cover issues such as working time, parental leave, equal treatment and information and consultation. In the lead up to the referendum, the TUC warned that Brexit would put these rights at risk while Jeremy Corbyn predicted a “bonfire” of rights should the UK leave the EU.
There were good reasons to be concerned. Over the past 30 years both Conservative and Labour governments have regarded employment rights as potentially damaging to the UK’s economic performance and have sought to preserve the “flexibility” of the labour market. Consecutive Conservative Party general election manifestos have promised to “repatriate” powers over employment rights from Brussels to the UK, claiming that EU Directives impose unreasonable costs on business and damage competitiveness. In the run up to his EU membership negotiations in late 2015 it was anticipated that David Cameron would demand that the UK be granted opt-outs from Directives relating to working time and temporary agency workers. In the end these demands, which would have required substantial treaty changes, were never made, but no-one should doubt the genuine desire of many Conservative politicians to end EU influence on UK employment legislation.
So what might happen next? As with everything related to Brexit, much will depend on the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. It is widely assumed that the UK government will seek to maintain access to the single market, but unless there is a substantial change in EU policy, access will be contingent on the UK continuing to adhere to EU social policy Directives. Given that the Directives are intended to prevent countries from gaining competitive advantages through social dumping, it is extremely unlikely that the UK could be part of the single market while having the freedom to completely ignore EU social policy.
Other scenarios, such as a UK-EU Free Trade Agreement (the so-called “Canada option”), would leave the UK with more freedom to make changes to employment rights and mean that future rulings of the European Court of Justice would not be binding on the UK. What might we expect to see then?
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