The battle to shape workers’ rights has just begun

Leaving the EU means our rights at work will now be shaped by the UK government, and that means they will become a key area of political contest

This is the third part in SPERI’s new series on Brexit, the Conservative Majority and the UK Political Economy

January 31st marked the end of the beginning of the Brexit process. The last few years have shown it is unwise to predict what the end point of that process will look like – or when we’ll reach it – but we can be sure that Brexit battles will rage throughout 2020 and through this parliament. We can also be certain that Brexit means the future of workers’ rights will now move to the heart of our politics.

EU membership guaranteed workers a set of rights grounded in EU law, including holiday pay, maternity rights and protection against discrimination. Governments could build on these rights – and anti-labour voices could rail against them – but a legal floor protected a minimum level of rights. They were off the table; non-negotiable. Brexit removes that legal floor and puts a politically-charged lightning bolt through workers’ rights: they are now very much on the table and up for debate. Like setting public spending levels or immigration policies, it is now in the gift of the UK government to shape workers rights, whatever ‘binding’ promises have previously been made.

The desire to agree a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020 will force the government to quickly answer the question: does it want to maintain the UK’s current set of workers’ rights, strengthen – or reduce them? The very fact that the question is being posed and must be answered illustrates the new reality of how our post-Brexit working rights are up for contest. And it is the Tories, emboldened with a large majority, who have the first opportunity to shape them.

Theresa May and initially Boris Johnson both proposed EU withdrawal legislation containing some safeguards for workers rights, but those clauses disappeared from Johnson’s post-election Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Instead the Government pledged in the December Queen’s Speech to introduce safeguards in a separate Employment Bill that will “protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work”.

What this ambition will mean in practice remains unclear, yet the Queen’s Speech did outline that the Employment Bill will create a single enforcement body to enforce employment rights, encourage flexible working and give greater (but unspecified) protections to low-paid and gig economy workers. 2020 also began with the Chancellor announcing a 6.2% increase in the National Living Wage and pledging ‘to end low pay’. Pre-election warnings of the Tories ripping up workers’ rights were perhaps misplaced, right?

Up to a point. Whilst Johnson claims the Conservatives now “speak for working people”, his manifesto and post-election announcements have raised alarm from MPs and the labour movement. The Queen’s Speech contained plans to curtail railway workers’ right to strike, and the Trades Union Congress has voiced concerns that new low regulation ‘Free Ports’ will provide lower protections for workers. And most fundamentally, there are serious concerns about why the Government didn’t include working rights safeguards in their Withdrawal Bill.

As EU trade talks now loom large, the answer to that question is becoming clear. Trade deals are about regulatory standards and the EU has made it clear that if the UK wants a deal it cannot deviate from single market rules on labour rights. By promising no alignment with Brussels’ rules Johnson is setting up workers’ rights as a central fault line. As talks begin a clear view of the Tory vision for workers’ rights will be revealed. Questions about whether they want to make it easier to fire workers or to reduce entitlements to paid leave are no longer hypothetical. As such, expect to hear a lot more about them.

Politics moves fast and so it is worth reminding ourselves that the reason workers’ rights are up for debate is the same as why the UK finally left the EU: a large Tory majority was elected on December 12th. Whilst we don’t yet know the government’s full agenda for workers’ rights, once it is set out its a question of when parliamentary approval will be secured not if. This is the political reality in which the UK’s post-Brexit workers’ rights will begin to be forged and it contains risks and rewards for the Conservatives.

While the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories have long argued for Brexit to be a moment for deregulation, will Johnson risk losing the votes he acknowledges are ‘on loan’ to his party from many ex-Labour voters? Whilst initial reports predicted that the free-marketeer ‘Britannia Unchained’ plan (which calls for significant cuts to employment laws) was ‘off the agenda’, this assessment seems premature in light of Johnson’s aim to agree a hardline trade deal. The two months since the election suggest he will seek an approach that, for now, aims to keep all Tory MPs happy and appeal to voters across his newly-expanded supporter base: pro-business and pro-worker; limits on industrial action one week, a big increase to the National Living Wage the next. As a domestic political strategy it appears shrewd, but the EU negotiations will force hard choices to be made and seem highly unlikely to keep all content.

Even without impending EU trade talks, our protections and rights at work would not be an issue to be dealt with at some point in the hazy future. With employment changing fast, working rights must always keep pace. What, if any, action might be taken by the government to protect workers from new forms of exploitation relating to workplace surveillance or from discrimination when hiring processes are automated? Will action finally be taken to tackle bogus self-employment? Further tests lie ahead. How might the government respond to an economic downturn? With the employment rate at a record high, will measures be taken to maintain job quantity at the expense of job quality?

Whilst answers to these questions are yet unknown, it is clear that the future of workers’ rights is now a live issue in British politics and one that is inextricably bound up with our post-Brexit future. The phoney war over workers’ rights has ended. The real contest is just beginning.

Read all of the posts in our blog series on Brexit, the Conservative Majority and the UK Political Economy.