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by Tom Freeman
21 June 2016
The EU referendum isn't about workers' rights, despite the hype

The EU referendum isn't about workers' rights, despite the hype

Solidarity, credit Linh Do

'Fair work’ is the type of political patois which can offer so much but can mean very little. After all, who is going to argue for unfair work?

What the fair work agenda means in practice, however, has more political potency. Fair pay, fair conditions and fair prospects are tangible benefits directly affected by policy. Actions speak louder than words.

However, despite protestations from both sides, it is not clear what role the European Union plays in this.


What does the EU referendum mean for Scotland's place in the world?

Making work pay- a roundtable discussion on fair work

Given the utter dominance of Conservative politicians and routine side-lining of Jeremy Corbyn in the media coverage, it seems incredible workers’ rights have had such a prominent place in the debate on EU membership. 

“Paid holidays, maternity rights, equal treatment for the millions of people working part time, protections for agency workers, even equal pay for women at work, all are guaranteed by Europe and all could be at risk if we left,” wrote Prime Minister David Cameron in The Guardian. 

“If we cut the numbers of potential workers coming here, that will help wages rise,” John Redwood blogged.

EU law currently overrides UK law, and therefore the Working Time Directive does grant people in the UK the right to time off and limited working hours.

However, the EU didn’t invent workers’ rights. Many of them such as maternity and paternity leave currently exceed the EU minimum or already existed in UK law. 

But are these supposed boons really being ‘valued and protected’ in the status quo anyway? 

I suspect Greek hospital, school and transport workers, who walked out last week in the wake of yet more enforced austerity and privatisation from the EU centre, may suggest otherwise. The loss of a million jobs and several pension reforms later, the EU’s fair work credentials are pretty flimsy.

But to pretend that Britain would do any better alone is foolish. There should be no illusions about what ‘Brussels red tape’ Brexiters want to cut through is, in what Priti Patel called “reducing the burden” on employers. 

The group’s aversion to red tape disappears when it comes to the kind which will face those who want to work abroad after Brexit.

Recent weeks have shown British business in an alarming light, with the ignominious appearance of two of its ‘stars’ in front of Commons select committees over their treatment of staff.

SportsDirect owner Mike Ashley admitted to MPs his staff had been paid under the legal minimum, and that workers had been docked 15 minutes pay for being a minute late for work. 

Meanwhile 11,000 British Homes Stores staff saw their livelihoods expendable in what has looked like asset-stripping of astonishing levels. Former BHS owner Sir Philip Green said he’d try to find a “resolvable” solution. Presumably not his previous solution, which was trying to sell the business to Mike Ashley.

These extreme cases are just headlines of a longer story which has seen people increasingly locked into jobs in which they work more than the hours they are paid for, EU red tape or not.

What are our governments doing in response? The Scottish Business Pledge to promote fair work and pay is a voluntary scheme. It is a tick-box exercise for those already willing.

And whichever side of the Conservative Party wins this referendum, the party will continue to enact the most radical restrictions to strike and picketing rights since the Thatcher era. Workers in health, education, fire, transport and border controls, who have experienced a virtual pay freeze since 2010, will be restricted even further. 

In this environment, a bidding war for the proletariat vote between David Cameron and Boris Johnson seems a little Alice Through the Looking Glass. 

And on the other side, whether we’re in the EU or not, the right of workers to be given enough pay to lead a fulfilling life, enough time to have that life outwith work, and the ability to progress that life along a career path will remain the language of left/right politics, however you dress it up.

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