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The UK left the European Union on the 31st December 2020 creating an even more uncertain future ahead while we are still on the road to recovery from the pandemic.

The pandemic highlighted the need to have strong employment rights in the UK and while in the European Union we benefitted from legislation such as the Working Time Directive, the future of employment rights in a post-Brexit Britain are now uncertain.

The UK Government have advised there are no plans to diminish workers’ rights, but considering the same Government voted against children receiving free school meals, despite overwhelming criticism, it is difficult to put faith in the Government to not backtrack on this. Boris Johnson dismissively promised “the UK won’t immediately send children up chimneys or pour raw sewage all over its beaches” which does not give immediate comfort that Johnson understands the importance of workers’ rights.

Although the UK Government have stated that they have no plans to water down workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain, they have also not given any reassurance that proposals to rid Britain of the protections of EU workers’ rights are not being considered.

The new Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng co-wrote ‘The Innovation Economy’ in which he proposes to exempt start-up firms from employment legislation and move away from a national minimum wage allowing it to be lowered in some areas of the country. The Financial Times report states Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are drawing up proposals to be considered by other ministers which includes proposals to end the 48-hour maximum working week; changes to rules about breaks at work; and removing overtime pay when calculating certain holiday pay entitlements. As we head toward a very uncertain future in the recovery from the pandemic in post-Brexit Britain, it is likely to cause even more strain on the population to know that workers’ rights that have been so important during the pandemic could be quashed. For instance, a 48-hour week and paid overtime has been imperative to key-workers in our NHS, haulage and airlines services.

Marley Morris, Associate Director for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) comments on the agreement reached on the 24th December 2020 between the UK and EU, stating “The protections it offers on labour and environmental standards are surprisingly weak and appear to leave considerable scope for a UK government to weaken EU-derived protections.” For instance, the UK accepted the EU’s proposal that the UK must enter an independent dispute resolution process if labour, consumer and environmental protections are diluted, to prevent unfair competition. The difficulty with this is the caveat that a breach will only occur when the lowering of the standards actually affects trade and investment not just that it has happened. Therefore, it weakens the protection to the British public.

Establishing a breach has affected trade and investment will not be an easy feat if the Government wish their breach to continue. Unfortunately, the IPPR believe that the rebalancing measures for a breach will only be effective in a small number of situations, leaving the UK Government in a strong position to water down workers’ rights. 

Ed Miliband writing for the Guardian puts the position perfectly by saying “it is not workers living in fear or forced to work so many hours that they cannot see their families that make for a successful country; it is workers who feel safe and secure. And it is businesses who value their employees and foster a positive working environment, with the best terms and conditions for their workers, including recognising the need for families to be able to balance their caring and working lives.” Britain cannot repair itself, let alone excel post-Brexit until they recognise their workers, protect and enhance their rights.

Blog by Jenny Scott, Solicitor

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