Deep within the mist of secrecy surrounding Brexit is the latent concern that Article 50 could trigger a bonfire of workers’ rights, as decades of progress risk being chipped away by over-zealous free marketeers.
To be frank, the short-term economic consequences of Brexit will almost certainly be as much a challenge to working people as any calculated giveaway of their rights. But as the UK staggers towards the exit door, entitlements, parental leave, and rest breaks – among others – will be on the negotiating table. The UK government must not attempt to use them as a bartering tool to realise their favoured Brexit, whatever that may be. Maintaining existing employment rights must be a red line for Theresa May, which is why I am calling on the government to give UK workers and businesses the stability they deserve by providing a cast-iron guarantee that all current EU-derived workplace rights will remain in British domestic law regardless of any future relationship with the EU.
This matters because several employment rights we currently enjoy are subject to the European Communities Act (1972) which, as the government has already revealed, will be repealed on the very first day of Brexit, meaning the corresponding rights will effectively cease to exist unless something is done about it.
To her credit, Theresa May has demonstrated a genuine commitment to workers’ rights through key speeches at the Conservative Party conference and in her vow – albeit tentative – to strengthen workers through representation on company boards. Moreover, Brexit Secretary David Davis has apparently already given Frances O’Grady the assurance that such rights will not be diluted. The concern, however, is that this view is not ubiquitous among Tory MPs. Priti Patel, for example, has previously lamented the ‘burdens’ of EU social and employment legislation. While Michael Gove and John Whittingdale both raised the prospect of EU laws, including those revolving around the acquired rights directive and working time directive, being scrapped or changed in the years ahead. With Theresa May’s wafer-thin majority in the Commons, the role of such backbench MPs could be substantial should Parliament be consulted over Brexit; enabling them to wield power both over the negotiating process itself, and in the post-Brexit landscape where employment rights will be at the behest of the current government.
This is why clarity matters in the Brexit negotiations. It is not my desire for the government to reveal its hand ad infinitum, but there are surely some things which must neither be on the table nor part of any negotiating strategy. As young people entering the world of work, it is incumbent upon us to ensure the government makes employment rights the ends, rather than the means, of our exit from the EU.