Defending employment rights must dominate the referendum conversation

We have EU membership to thank for many hard-won rights that we now take for granted

 

With a majority Conservative government that is slim and therefore vulnerable, and a government programme that a Guardian editorial this week described as ‘rag bag’, members in both Houses will be slaving away under the cosh of the chief whips.

Among the incoherent set of policies laid out in the Queen’s Speech, the referendum on an in/out membership of the European Union will dominate the conversation. Under pressure from his backbenchers and UKIP, Cameron caved in. He is relying on his ‘skills’ as a negotiator to come up with enough EU reforms that he can put to the country.

But no matter how many ‘reforms’ the prime minister may be able to secure traipsing around European capitals, they will never be enough for his many right-wing Eurosceptic MPs. For them, only full BREXIT will do.

With the stakes of this referendum so high, we can expect a ‘battle royal’ in both houses. Europe was the fault line of the 1992 Conservative government, with the party riven apart over the Maastricht Treaty.

Labour has to come out fighting for a Yes vote to stay in Europe. Whilst arguing for 16 and 17-year-old votes is important, Labour has to lay out for the British people why a No vote would be a disaster for jobs – especially in manufacturing – and for employment rights.

Despite the shenanigans on the Tory benches, Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey has said that Unite will play its part in a genuine debate:

“Some of the most sensible rights for working people flow from our membership of the EU, much needed given the determination of this government to reduce further even the minor protections UK workers currently depend upon.”

Defending jobs and Europe-wide employment rights has to be uppermost in the discussions to come, and Labour has a big role to play.

As a delegate to the TUC Congress in the early 1980s, I well remember the late Ron Todd, former TGWU general secretary, telling us that ‘membership of the then EEC was the only  game in town’.

It was the European Commissioner Jacques Delors in the mid 1980s and his social chapter that persuaded many on the left who had regarded the EEC as the ‘bosses club’ to embrace membership. Ron had been impressed with Delors’ contention that completion of the Single European Market would be an opportunity to give it a social dimension.

Delors rapidly became a target for the Sun, who produced the infamous front page Up Yours Delors’. But Delors went on to preserve the European model of society with its emphasis on ‘close co-operation and solidarity as well as competition’.

Many of the workers’ rights we have today have their roots in that time. Now we need to bring that same level of commitment to the run up to the referendum.

EU membership has also given us the laws and legislation that have helped bring investment and decent jobs in manufacturing to the UK. Three and a half million jobs in the UK – that’s more than ten per cent in every region – and an estimated £30 billion of our economy (p.24) are a direct result of our membership of the EU. Two-thirds of manufacturing jobs in the UK are sustained by trade with the rest of the EU.

The economics make membership crucial, but so too does the protection that it gives workers. We have EU membership to thank for parental leave being extended to at least four months for each parent no matter what type of contract a worker may be on, and for laws which say part time workers can no longer be treated less favourably than their full time counterparts.

The list of rights goes on; the working time directive that protects workers from being forced to work more than 48 hours on average, with breaks during and between shifts; guaranteed paid annual leave of at least four weeks.

Meanwhile, major manufacturing companies have come out against a UK exit. Recently Airbus UK said that the company is based on a ‘model of European integration’ and promised to be more vocal in their support for stability and continued membership. Airbus said they believed an EU exit would mean significant changes to the regulatory and economic environment in which they operate, which may well impact on their competitiveness.

One of our leading engineering bodies has also pointed out that EU citizens currently working here as skilled engineers and scientists – who are adding to the success of the UK economy – would become foreigners in the event of an exit, possibly without the right to stay. And this is a two way street. We have many of our nationals (including Unite members) working in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and beyond. Will there be repercussions?

As Unite’s assistant general secretary responsible for manufacturing, I am committed to our continuing membership of the EU. No matter how disappointed I still am that Labour lost the election, our union will fight hard for a Yes vote to defend jobs and to defend employment rights.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary at UNITE
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