Brexit: What will happen to workers' rights?

Article published on March 29, 2017
community published
Article published on March 29, 2017

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

On Wednesday 29 March 2017, Theresa May finally set the wheels of Brexit in motion.

The UK Prime Minister has let no opportunity slip by to emphasise her government’s approach to Brexit is “the will of the people”. Starting today, we’ll find out if she can back up that claim.

Now that British Prime Minister Theresa May has officially started Britain's retreat from the European Union, one of the concerns about 'Brexit' is the effect it could have on workers’ rights.

Once Britain’s negotiated its way out of the EU, sixty years’ worth of workers’ rights protected by the EU’s treaties will be at risk.

Initially all EU legislation will be transposed into UK law, but after that the government will start repealing the bits and bobs it doesn’t like under the Great Repeal Bill.

But that’s OK, because May vowed to make Britain “a country that works for everyone” when she entered office in July last year.

It’s necessary too, as the country quite clearly doesn’t work for everyone at the moment. In today’s Britain, workers’ rights are already being squeezed.

Spanish bank Santander employs hundreds in Britain on 12-hour-per-year contracts, the Financial Times reported on Monday. Twelve hours per year.

‘One-hour contracts’ they’re called - based on the number of hours guaranteed work employees have each month. After the controversial 'zero-hour contracts', which don't guarantee workers any hours, one-hour contracts are just another type of contract that benefits employers a great deal and employees very little.

Unemployment figures may be falling, but it’s important to note the growing share of zero-hour contracts, as without that qualification the figures paint a rather misleading picture. Though more people have jobs, a third of those on zero-hour contracts say they’d like to work more hours.

Zero-hour contracts simply aren't fair to employees. They don’t have any certainty about the hours they can work, meaning that their income can vary. Zero-hour contract workers earn considerably less than permanent employees and because their jobs are uncertain they are far less likely to challenge bad working conditions.

Practically all the perks are for the employers, who will only have to pay for hours worked and can easily adjust their workforce according to their needs, which is likely to boost profits.

However, for employees they tend to do more harm than good. Realistically, you can’t start building a life on a zero-hour contract because you can’t rely on a steady income.

Santander’s one-hour contracts could be proof that workers’ rights are further corroding and big corporations are increasingly succeeding in bending society to their will.  Evidence for this is all around us.

Sandwich chain Pret A Manger had to backtrack on its plans to pay teenage staff in sandwiches after it sparked public outrage.

Sports Direct still hasn't paid staff back pay they're legally entitled to after it was found last year the retailing group paid groups of employees less than the minimum wage.

All of this is taking place as the UK government enters a long and difficult negotiation process with pressure to deliver a deal that helps the country reconcile after a divisive result. A Herculean task.

If Theresa May wants to address the anger and disenchantment that, at least in part, bolstered the Brexit vote, she can’t afford to side with big business only. And yet, that’s exactly what might happen.

The government will want to show the world Britain’s open to business while these talks are ongoing to compensate for any uncertainty that might put companies off investments.

The PM has already hinted that the government’s prepared to lower corporate tax rates even further, while Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested Britain could become a tax haven to keep attracting new business.

I fail to see how turning Britain into a low wage, low tax, low welfare country is going to reduce inequality and make it fairer - the very things May promised to do.

The danger lies in the government focusing solely on dealing with the consequences of Brexit (how to stay attractive to business outside the EU) and forgetting about the underlying causes (the deeper dissatisfaction of people referred to as the ‘economically left behind’ and ‘just about managing’).

Brexit cannot become a reason not to hold this government to account. ‘We always knew there would be short-term pain, but this is what you wanted’ is a convenient excuse for the May administration not to deliver what it’s promised.

Besides, the Brexit vote had already happened when May came to power. She knew what she was stepping into (at least that’s what people hope!).

Failing to deliver what she said she’d do therefore cannot reflect a change in circumstances; it can only reflect a change in priorities.

With the weakest opposition in decades just as the country needs it most, it will become even more important for Brits to speak up and remind the government what the will of the people really is.