EU ‘red tape’ protects workers’ rights

A stronger case needs to be made for the social benefits of EU membership


Graeme Macdonald, the chief executive of JCB, is unfazed by the prospect of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. He says it won’t result in the erection of trade barriers and might liberate British businesses from ‘red tape and regulation’.

But as is often the case with Eurosceptic arguments, detailed examples of these chokeholds on business are missing from the reports of his comments.

This may not be unintentional. What clichés like ‘red tape’ or ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ really refer to is often vital rights for workers initiated at EU level. Rare examples of specific changes that eurosceptics would like to see include calls from the ‘Fresh Start’ group of Tory MPs for the abolition of the ‘working time directive’, and the ‘Business for Britain’ lobby group’s advocacy of withdrawal from EU social and employment agreements.

And what precisely do these directives and social and employment rules entail? First and foremost, many of the basic rights at work that we all take for granted.

A report from the Involvement and Participation Association highlighted how the EU has played a fundamental role in extending and expanding rights at work in the UK. From protection for part time and temporary workers to protection from discrimination; from rights for working parents to the right to paid holidays and a regular lunch break; from health and safety to promoting employee voice; the EU has been fundamental in making the British workplace a fairer and more equal place.

It is a crafty Eurosceptic tactic to generalise these aspects of EU membership as ‘red tape’. The specific policies contained within EU agreements on workers’ rights are actually incredibly popular. Or they would be, if people realised that they existed.

Polling for the High Pay Centre and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung found that 82 per cent of people support the maintenance of existing rights at work, such as paid holiday and maternity leave, yet just 25 per cent correctly identified the EU as being the source of these rights.

This ‘what has the EU ever done for us?’ mentality is surely borne of pro-Europeans’ failure to challenge constant Eurosceptic grousing at ‘EU red tape’, or explain the many improvements in the working lives of British people that result from EU membership.

Such a case is there to be made. There is a reason why certain rights need to apply at EU level. Without such a floor of basic rights, member states would face perverse incentives to cut back on rights, wages and environmental protection in order to compete for business and investment. This would lead to a race to the bottom; a race in which working people would surely be the losers.

Within Europe, by contrast, we can agree common standards that ensure fair and dignified working conditions for everyone. The UK public already accepts this. The High Pay Centre found that 49 per cent of respondents agreed that the EU should set certain common standards on worker rights, against just 30 per cent who felt that member countries should be able to control their own policy in this area.

Indeed, there was a significant majority of support in favour of more EU-wide action, such as a floor on corporation tax or an EU-wide wealth tax, to prevent a race to the bottom and make it more difficult for big businesses and the super-rich to dodge their taxes.

This case for the EU’s social role needs to be a key part of the debate in the lead-up to the forthcoming referendum. In a globalised economy predicated on competition between states and businesses, we can expect further pressure on employment rights and working conditions.

Though imperfect, the EU is probably the most prominent supra-national institution capable of mitigating and pushing back against these pressures.

Yet, tragically, those who have gained least from globalisation and who are most in need of decent employment protection, seem to be the most fervently anti-EU, with UKIP winning a frightening share of the vote in Labour’s industrial Northern heartlands.

There is a serious risk that a pro-European campaign that ignores the EU’s social potential and focuses solely on the benefits of EU membership to big business risks losing the referendum. The vision of Social Europe – a Europe that is more than just a free trade zone – must be defended from the ideologically driven de-regulatory agenda of the Eurosceptic right.

Yes, the EU is good for jobs and investment in the UK. But the pro-EU argument needs to go beyond that. It needs to show that the EU has been – and remains – good for working people too.

Joe Dromey is head of policy and research at the Involvement and Participation Association. Luke Hildyard is deputy director of the High Pay Centre

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20 Responses to “EU ‘red tape’ protects workers’ rights”

  1. wj


    The people of this country have been fighting for their working rights for over 150 years.

    We established case law through our common law courts obliging employers to look after employees.
    We also brought into being Factories Acts, and were barely in the Common Market in 1973 when Michael Foot pushed through the UK Parliament our Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

    And what is the point of these protections if we have no jobs – the massive movement of cheap, migrant labour has seen the people on our working class estates pushed aside and wages dropped to the minimum level set by the Labour party – and you lecture us about the effects of globalisation.

    And what makes this EU construct so superior to national government – as far as I can see it has brought nothing but poverty and misery to whole swathes of people.

    No, we don’t need to be on our knees and shuffling off to the banquet and limousine brigade in Brussels; we’d rather be on our own two feet and fighting for our rights home here – as we’ve always done.

  2. David Lindsay

    Obviously only to whatever extremely limited extent that there are any workers’ rights in Britain today. And if we needed the EU for them, then there would be no point in having a Labour Party.

    This referendum would not be on the principle of the EU, whatever that might be. It would be on Cameron’s renegotiated terms, with, as in 1975, withdrawal as the only other option on the ballot paper.

    Meaning that there would be absolutely no reason to assume that Labour would back a Yes vote. Indeed, how could it possibly? Even the BBC is already phrasing Labour’s position very carefully indeed: “likely to”, “expected to”, and all that.

  3. David Lindsay


    Ah, the “left-wing”, “anti-business” EU, which is therefore so beloved of the CBI, a body that receives considerably less EU funding than Nigel Farage personally, never mind UKIP. That is why candidates for the European Parliament in favour of withdrawal have been funded by the much-maligned RMT and endorsed by the Morning Star, whereas pro-EU campaigns are funded up to the hilt by BAE Systems, WPP, the London Stock Exchange, BT, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Europe, Bank of America, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas.

    The charge of “socialism” is tellingly only ever made by the EU’s ostensible opponents. Whatever arrangement with the EU has been renegotiated to the satisfaction of David Cameron will be horrendous from the point of view of British workers and the users of British public services.

    But then, the economic, social, cultural and political power of the British working class, whether broadly or narrowly defined, cannot exactly be said to have increased since 1973. Any more than Britain has fought no further wars since joining a body as successful as NATO or nuclear weapons when it comes to keeping the peace.

    We had full employment before we joined the EU. We have never had it since. No job in the real economy is dependent on our membership. Or were trade with, and travel to, the Continent unheard of, because impossible, before 1973?

    Not for nothing did Margaret Thatcher support accession, oppose withdrawal in the 1975 referendum, and go on, as Prime Minister, to sign an act of integration so large that it could never be equalled, a position from which she never wavered until the tragically public playing out of the early stages of her dementia. For that was what the “No! No! No!” outburst, which was not a planned speech, really was.

  4. Cole

    The unions – who generally support EU membership – must be part of this wicked neoliberal conspiracy. No doubt we should be taking our instructions from the comrades at the Morning Star.

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