The question of employment rights has been a recurring theme in the debate over the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). The argument that European laws have imposed unreasonable and unnecessary burdens on business, and particularly on small and medium sized business, was a touchstone for those arguing in favour of Brexit. However, in the wake of the referendum vote, there have been growing calls for workers to be offered equivalent legal protection if and when the UK finally leaves the EU.
Concern over the potential unravelling of our existing framework of employment rights largely revolves around the importance of establishing ‘a floor of rights’ and setting minimum standards in ensuring a degree of workplace equity, protecting the most vulnerable and challenging the reliance of the UK economy on low paid and low skilled work.
The stance taken by government has important implications for the ability of the UK economy to compete with its EU counterparts. More specifically it suggests that providing a robust framework of individual employment rights and also encouraging the development of collective forms of employee representation are central to increasing employee engagement and consequently productivity.
In simple terms, current employment rights for British workers can be categorised into three types. The first are purely national measures with no EU influence or intervention and upon which Brexit will have no direct effect, such as the National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage. The second were brought in as a result of EU directives, including equal treatment for agency workers, limits on working time and rights around information and consultation. The third, and perhaps most complex, are those where British law has been amended, extended and underpinned by EU measures.
What happens to these and other rights remains, of course, to be seen, and once the Brexit process is underway, simply unravelling the fabric of British employment law, deciding which strands to retain and which to repeal, will then take up substantial amounts of Parliamentary time. And much will depend on the stance taken by the Brexit negotiators.
If Britain seeks some form of continuing trade relationship with the EU, then it might be necessary to retain some, if not all, of the rights and protections required by the EU. However, there is a growing consensus that at least some employment rights will be weakened.
There are also strong indications as to the rights which are most at risk, with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggesting that the coming years will see “a tinkering with specific areas which have been less popular with UK employers”. Therefore it seems we are likely to see the erosion of rights related to: working time and paid holidays; agency workers; protection against some forms of discrimination; health and safety; and collective consultation on issues such as redundancy.