There are two very different paths ahead of us, writes Mike Buckley.
The battle for better workers’ rights has been long and hard fought. Thursday’s election is about many things – but one of the most important is that this election will decide the future of workers’ rights in the UK.
If the Conservatives win this week, for the first time in decades, rights and protections that we take for granted will be at risk. EU membership commits the UK Government to uphold minimum standards, whoever is in power. The Conservatives could have put forward a Leave deal that committed to matching future EU standards, or that at least committed to keeping the standards we have. They did neither.
The Tory Brexit deal compromises rights by moving the level playing field regulations, designed to keep the UK on a par with the EU in terms of worker’s rights and other areas, out of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement and into the non-legally binding, essentially aspirational Political Declaration. In place of that, he’s promised ‘legally binding’ rights will be written into the UK Withdrawal Act.
The workers’ rights that would be include the working time directive, which sets common limits on hours so workers aren’t played off each other and made to work for extended periods, and equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender or race.
Johnson would have us believe that none of the above really matters because he’s going to write workers’ rights into a Parliamentary bill, the future Withdrawal Act. But this only has effect in UK law, which can be changed by an act of Parliament. If he gets a majority he willl be in control of Parliament – so this promise isn’t really worth the paper it’s written on.
The Tory offer on workers’ rights is ultimately based a question: do we trust them? To find the answer, let’s go right back to the start, to the fundamentals. The Tory Party is based on a free market ideology. That’s to say, they believe that the more free the market is, i.e. the more free private businesses are, the more efficient production will be in terms of reflecting what we want as a society, and the better off we will all be.
It doesn’t matter that, in a world where individuals have vastly differing levels of power, such as the one we live in (you could fit the people who own half the world’s wealth onto one bus), this argument simply provides a stage-curtain for exploitation, or that this argument assumes that we can only operate as self-interested individuals, rather than as a united society, working together and for each other to create the most we can in line with the common good.
The answer is no, we cannot trust the Tories with workers’ rights, because anything which restricts the freedom of private business is, in their free-marketer worldview, a step away from the perfect society. Workers’ rights do restrict the freedom of private business, and for good reason. Workers’ rights have helped us to create a better society, and recgonise that profit is not the only motive or need that should be rewarded. Parental leave, equal pay, limits on hours and other rights are just as important, and are in any case likely to increase company productivity and profitability.
The final question is this: if the Conservatives are as committed to workers’ rights as they say they are, why would they not put them in the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement? The only point of moving them to the non-binding political declaration is to give room for manoeuvre, and to create an opportunity for them to be removed or reduced. We would be fools to trust the Party which is financed by hedge funds, part of a large network of ultra-free marketer influencing institutions, and was responsible for ripping the heart out of working class mining and steel communities.
Labour’s offer is a stark contrast. We have not only committed to maintain all the rights and protections now in place, whatever the conclusion of Brexit. We have committed to a wealth of new rights in our workers’ rights manifesto, which promises that Labour will ban zero hour contracts, demand that shift breaks are paid, bring in a £10 minimum wage, repeal anti trade union legislation, and create a Workers Protection Agency to ensure that all employees are safe at work.
Thursday matters for many reasons. Among the priorities is the continuation of workers’ rights and protections, and the hope that they can be improved, not sacrificed on a futile Tory quest for trade deals and a free market which would leave workers open to exploitation and mistreatment.
Mike Buckley is the Director of Labour for a Public Vote.
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