Government plans to “rip up” workers’ rights met with outrage

Leaked government plans to tear up EU-derived workers rights creates an angry backlash

UK workers’ rights previously protected by EU law are at risk of being “ripped up” under proposals being drawn up by the government. The planned shake-up of regulations is part of the government’s post-Brexit overhaul of UK labour markets.

The deregulatory measures could see changes to the 48-hour working week cap, resulting in a longer working week, with no legal cap. Under the changes, workers also run the risk of losing out on holiday entitlement and pay and facing an end to the legal right to rest breaks at work.

The proposals were leaked by the Financial Times on January 15. According to the FT’s report, the plans are being put together by the UK’s business department with the approval of Downing Street.

The overhaul of workers’ rights would mark a clear divergence from the EU labour market. News that the government is considering rolling back EU-derived workers’ protections has been met with disdain from thinktanks, trade unions and Labour.

In response to the EU-UK trade deal, published the day after Boxing Day, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warned that the deal gave ministers significant opportunity to revoke workers’ rights.

It’s taken little more than three weeks for the IPPR’s warnings that the UK-EU trade deal leaves workers’ right at serious risk of erosion to come into fruition.

“Deeply unpopular”

Marley Morris, IPPR Associate Director for Immigration, Trade and EU Relations, warns that the measures would not only be “deeply unpopular” with the public, but would risk backlash from the EU.  

“[The] report in the Financial Times that the government plans to ‘rip up’ EU working time rules would be bad for workers, damaging for UK-EU relations, and deeply unpopular with the public,” said Morris.

Referencing earlier research by the IPPR into public opinion about Brexit and workers’ protection, Morris added:

“We also know that ripping up working time regulations would have little public support. Our 2018 study of attitudes to EU regulations found around three quarters of the public supported maintaining or tightening working time rules, including strong support from both remainers and leavers.”

Labour vows to fight “tooth and nail”

Labour promises to fight “tooth and nail” against the leaked plan, warning the measures would amount to taking a “wrecking ball” to workers’ rights.

In a letter, Labour challenged business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to rule out the specific proposals. While Kwarteng denied that the government would lower workers’ rights, he failed to reject the authenticity of the FT’s report, nor any specific proposal.  

Labour warns that abolishing of the 48-hour working week cap could seriously jeopardise the safety of key workers, such as delivery drivers and hauliers. It could also put pressure on NHS staff who may feel compelled to work excessive hours.

In a statement, Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said: “Ministers have promised time and again they will not row back on workers’ rights but their mask has slipped. Crucially while the government speaks in platitudes, there has been no real denial that the specific proposals reported are on the table. 

 “These proposals to rip up workers’ rights should not even be up for discussion, and Labour will fight tooth and nail against them if ministers pursue this course of action.” 

Trade unions voice contempt

Trade unions didn’t hold back in issuing similar contempt to the government’s post-Brexit plans to attack workers’ rights.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey contextualised the timing of discussion over ripping up workers’ protections.

“There is immense loss, sadness and uncertainty in our country just now. No decent government would pick this moment to launch an attack on the rights of its citizens.

“This is a huge mistake by this government. This country has a proud history of standing up for rights, freedom and decency,” McCluskey commented.

GMB Union says it will confront plans to tear up workers’ rights. As Warren Kenny, acting general secretary at GMB said:

“If this leak is anything to go by the government is not only tearing up its election promises but worse still taking a sledgehammer to workers’ rights while workers are facing down a pandemic in the middle of the worst economic crisis in all of our lifetimes. This would be unforgiveable.

“GMB won’t stand by if the Government forces workers to work longer hours and lose paid holiday. Our workers across the UK deserve better.” 

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist and columnist for Left Foot Forward.

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