THE cat, as shadow business secretary Ed Miliband put it, is now out of the bag on the Conservatives’ plans to look at scrapping some workers’ rights protections embedded when the UK was a member of the European Union.
Of course, the noises of the arch-Brexiters in the Cabinet and just one look at the wealthy backers of the drive to rip the UK out of the EU would have given many people a fair idea of where this was likely headed. As would talk of turning the UK into something like Singapore. And the Tories’ track record and philosophy on employment rights, including their attitude to trade unions.
The UK Government’s persistent refusal to sign up to EU labour market and environmental protections during excruciating Brexit negotiations also seemed to give a fair idea of the direction of travel. And it was only days after the end of the transition period that Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiter nominated as a Tory peer by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, advocated a widespread dismantling of EU regulations which have offered such important protections to people and the environment.
Sadly, the current vintage of Conservatives seems likely to take the country in the direction of the US labour market. This labour market is sometimes described as “flexible” but “insecure” would probably be a far better characterisation.
Tory philosophy on employment rights has certainly contrasted starkly over the years with the German model of very strong labour market protections, fully functioning interaction between companies and trade unions with teeth for the greater good, and an impressive social security net. And also with the position in many other European countries, such as those in the Nordic region.
In terms of having a soundly functioning society and also an economy which receives a boost from a sense of security and wellbeing among a population and consequent lack of fear about spending, the labour market model in many European countries works a treat. Long hours, a lack of rights, and permanent fear about what might happen next are, in contrast, not things which seem advantageous in any way to productivity, even if a minority of unscrupulous employers might like a fearful workforce.
Time will tell where things go in the UK. The Tories seem at the moment to be trying to paint a picture that their tinkering will not harm workers’ rights at all. However, people will have to form their own opinions on whether Mr Miliband’s expectation of where we are headed or the broad-brush assurances of Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng are more convincing. And it is very easy to form the opinion, looking at the Johnson administration and its backers, and the Tory track record, that we should be fearful on the outlook for workers’ rights.
It was, sadly, no surprise late last week to see the Financial Times headline: “UK workers’ rights at risk in plans to rip up EU labour market rules.”
The FT reported that worker protections enshrined in EU law, including the maximum 48-hour week, would be ripped up under plans being drawn up by the Government as part of a post-Brexit overhaul of labour markets. The article said the package of deregulatory measures was being put together by the UK’s business department with the approval of Downing Street, according to people familiar with the matter. It had not yet been agreed by ministers or put to the Cabinet but select business leaders had been sounded out on the plan.
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It sounds like the Tories have already made a big start on what seems highly likely to be a slippery slope for the working population at large.
Mr Kwarteng’s immediate response to the FT story was: “We are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights. The UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world – going further than the EU in many areas. We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them.”
It will be very interesting to see if this is the case. Also interesting was Mr Kwarteng’s confirmation to the business, energy and industrial strategy committee on Tuesday that his department was carrying out a consultation with business leaders on EU employment rules, including the working time directive.
Mr Kwarteng told the committee: “I think the view was that we wanted to look at the whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep, if you like.”
Cue the sound of alarm bells.
In terms of this Conservative Government as a whole, and the potential for divergence between assurances and reality, we should bear in mind the arch-Brexiters in the Cabinet relentlessly promoted leaving the EU as good for the UK and its citizens.
Boris Johnson Picture Stefan Rousseau/PA
We already see how Brexit is working out. A sorry shambles in the short term, with exporters and individuals finding the end of the transition period on December 31 has brought a spectacular mess.
This was inevitable, but the Tories had painted a picture that it would not happen. Remember how triumphant Mr Johnson was when he unveiled his narrow trade deal with the EU on Christmas Eve? It has not taken long to see the difference between tariff-free and frictionless trade.
And the big, brave new free trade deals promised by the Brexiters have failed entirely to emerge.
The big one for the Tories has been the trade deal they want with the US, and were trying to negotiate with the Trump administration. Who knows what will happen with that now, under newly installed President Joe Biden?
What is for sure is EU and US relations immediately look much warmer, with the departure of Donald Trump and the arrival of Mr Biden.
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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was swift to welcome Mr Biden’s immediate move for the US to rejoin the Paris climate accord. She described this as the “starting point for our renewed cooperation”, declaring: “And way more is to come.”
She added: “The EU and US must lead from the front and bring an alliance of like-minded partners with us. There is of course no greater need for global cooperation in the short term than in tackling the pandemic, which has been so devastating on both sides of the Atlantic.”
There is no doubt the global political backdrop has changed, and it will be interesting to see how the Johnson administration, which for a long time seemed very close to former president and Brexit fan Mr Trump and has looked similarly populist, adapts to the much-changed circumstances in which it finds itself.
On the specific matter of the US trade deal which the UK has been seeking, the crucial thing to remember is the benefits of such an agreement, if it were concluded, are absolutely tiny relative to what the country has lost with its departure from the EU and single market.
The fact of the matter remains that, as well as the short-term chaos, Brexit will be hugely damaging to the UK economy and living standards over years and decades, as forecasts drawn up by the Theresa May government show.
So this folly will be woeful for the population at large.
Of course, it would seem likely that many of the wealthy Brexit backers will not be focusing on the good of the general population but on their narrow interests.
Which brings us back to the Tories moving with unseemly haste to look at dismantling the European protections they do not fancy. We must remember in this context that the Tories have not been bringers of labour market protections over the decades – quite the opposite.
Mr Miliband said: “A government committed to maintaining existing protections would not be reviewing whether they should be unpicked. This exposes that the Government’s priorities for Britain are totally wrong.”
It would surely be difficult to argue in any way against this reasoning.
SNP MP Drew Hendry meanwhile declared: “Millions of workers depend on the protections that are enshrined in EU law. Westminster cannot be trusted to protect and advance them – as the Tory assault on workers’ rights begins with a race to the bottom on deregulation.”
Again, Mr Hendry’s take seems likely, from having seen the Tory attitude to workers’ rights in the past, to be much closer to the mark than Mr Kwarteng’s response to the FT article.
It was good to hear James Reed, chairman of major UK recruitment firm Reed, declare he did not think there was any wish in business to see, as he put it, a “so-called bonfire of workers’ rights”, and assert the 48-hour working week was right and should be protected. Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Mr Reed said of workers’ rights: “They must be protected because fair treatment is the bedrock of good workplace relations.”
He flagged his belief that the Government should focus on lower-paid workers and on measures to tackle unemployment.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, of course, fuelled the unemployment woes by refusing for far too long to extend the coronavirus job retention scheme, through which the UK taxpayer supports the incomes of furloughed workers.
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UK unemployment has already surged, with far worse to come.
Sadly though, the Tories, amid the post-Brexit trade shambles and the grim economic fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic, seem determined to prioritise what looks like the start of a serious erosion of workers’ rights facilitated by the UK’s departure from the EU.
This is a matter of grave concern. It is crucial the Tories are held to account every step of the way on this although, sadly, with their big majority, this may not make any difference to what they can steamroller through, as we have seen already with the points-based immigration system for EU countries.