#EUref explained: Does the EU defend workers’ rights?


CommonSpace continues its series of explainers on the EU referendum with a look at whether the EU is beneficial for workers’ rights in the UK

In the final weeks of the campaign over the UK’s membership of the EU, Britain’s largest trade unions have called for a vote to remain within the EU in order to maintain protections for workers’ rights.

In EU countries such as Greece and France, EU institutions are calling for curtailments to workers’ rights in order to promote neo-liberal economic reform.

But what about the UK? CommonSpace takes a look at the EU and workers’ rights.

What rights does the EU give workers?

The guarantees of basic rights for workers across Europe issue from vast plethora of regulatory and legal machinery, including the European Social Charter, various chapters of European treaties including the Masstricht Treaty and the Treaty of Amsterdam, and from numerous EU directives.

This bureaucratic architecture has grown up through many decades and extends different frameworks across different parts of the EU – meaning that establishing a single system across the entire 28 member block is next to impossible.

However there are some fundamental rights which are felt across the continent and which enforce EU-wide standards of employment practice. These include regulations on equal conditions and pay for women and ethnic minorities, maternity leave, minimum paid holidays and a maximum working week, as well as rights for workers to organise together.

It’s fair to say some of the other provisions found in the regulations are aspirational. Article two of the social charter calls for the right to work and for full employment, despite the fact that European unemployment has grown considerably since the EU was established.

What is their record of enforcement in the UK?

It is one thing for directives and charters to be passed at an EU level. In reality the member countries often prevaricate when it comes to implementation.

Sometimes member states outstrip the EU in implementing workers’ rights.

The UK implemented a raft of equality legislation on racial and sexual equality before many EU directives came into effect. Much of this legislation was introduced in the 1970’s and has since been surpassed by EU directives and other regulations.

On the other hand, some rights introduced to the UK from the EU have since been improved upon at a UK level.

When the EU Working Time Directive introduced four weeks of mandatory paid holiday per year in 1993 this was initially resisted by the UK, before being adopted and improved upon in 1998, when it increased from 20 days to 28 days.

Another part of the Working Time Directive is the maximum working week of 48 hours. This provision involves so many loopholes that it is essentially beyond enforcement.

Is there a danger from an Out vote to workers’ rights?

It is an open question whether an Out vote would result in a diminution of workers’ rights.

Certainly it’s the case that many in the Out campaign, including former London Mayor Boris Johnson, Conservative ministers like Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Priti Patel, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, UKIP MP Douglas Carswell and party leader Nigel Farage as well as non-party political figures like writer James Dellingpole are all long-term and vociferous advocates of economic liberalisation and opponents of extending workers’ rights in law.

It is the leading presence of these figures in the Out campaign which concerns many trade unionists and those on the left. 

However, the UK already has some of the weakest worker protections in the EU, coming 31 out of 34 advanced economies as rated by the OECD.

There is, put simply, little to prune back on, and any future UK Government might be unlikely to cut back on such minimal protections as 28 days’ paid holiday, or the already poorly-enforced legislation around equal pay for men and women.

Furthermore, many on the In side of the argument contend that a UK outwith the EU would need to remain part of the European Economic Area – within which much EU regulation, including workers rights, would still operate. This is already the case for countries like Norway, which is outside the EU.

Picture courtesy of habeebee

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