Brexit and workers’ rights: Give me a break!


The already hyperbolic ‘debate’ around the likely impact of Brexit on UK workers’ rights got significantly sillier this week, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn using his Big Speech on Europe to warn of a “bonfire of [workers’] rights” should Britain vote ‘leave’ on 23 June, and the TUC cranking up the volume of its own scaremongering with a dire (in every sense) warning that “the principle of holiday rights for all could simply be abolished”.

In its press release, the TUC warns that

the hard-won right to holiday pay could be lost if Britain votes to leave the European Union, with many people at risk of losing some or all of their paid leave.

Well, yes, there must be a theoretical possibility that, following a ‘leave’ vote in June, Daniel Hannan MEP becomes leader of the Conservative party after David Cameron resigns to spend more time with his tax advisers, and the unlovely Daniel then goes into the next election on a platform of ‘Vote Tory, get no paid holiday!’. On Thursday’s BBC Question Time, the superficially clever but actually rather dim Daniel hinted that all was fine under Neville Chamberlain’s Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, which recommended (but did not require) that employers give their workers one week of paid holiday each year.

However, outside the TUC bunker and Jeremy Corbyn’s under-powered private office, no one seriously believes any of this would happen, should Brexit follow a ‘leave’ vote in June’s referendum. Because the EU-derived rights wouldn’t vanish in a puff of smoke with Brexit – future governments would have to actively legislate to remove them. And, whatever else leaving the EU might mean for such workplace rights (almost certainly ‘not very much’, for the vast majority of workers), the right to four weeks’ paid holiday plus Bank Holidays is the EU-derived right that is least at risk from post-Brexit Tory governments. And you don’t have to take my word for it.

Kirsten Cluer, of Cluer HR, notes “it is inconceivable that any UK Government would choose to repeal discrimination law or maternity leave just because it was no longer bound by EU rules … [and] it is difficult to see any government repealing the right to take paid annual leave”. Connie Cliff, Siobhan Bishop and Jonathan Chamberlain – no relation to Neville, as far as I know – of law firm Gowling WLG, note that “even the most fervent opponents of the Working Time Regulations 1998 would not suggest the wholesale removal of statutory annual leave rights”.

David Whincup of law firm Squire Patton Boggs notes that it is “hard to see” a Conservative government setting about “any material dismantling of the employment rights of the bulk of the electorate, wooing them with such temptations as longer hours, fewer and less-paid holidays, reduced freedom from discrimination, etc.”. And Mr Employment Law himself, barrister Daniel Barnett of Outer Temple chambers, is clear that, in the event of Brexit:

Most of the Working Time Regulations [would] remain. Paid holiday [would] certainly stay, and of course we gold-plated the European Union’s four weeks’ paid annual leave with 5.6 weeks.

Furthermore, as Kirsten Cluer notes, while it is not at all clear what price the EU would impose on an exited UK in return for favourable trading arrangements along the lines of Switzerland or Norway, the deal might well “include the UK having to maintain all existing European employment law so as not to skew the market. In which case, the UK will be back where it was.” Paul Callegari of global law firm K & L Gates says much the same:

Even if the UK leaves the EU, the desire to maintain some sort of free trade agreement with the EU (either by joining the EEA or negotiating bilateral agreements) will mean that the UK is still likely to be required by the EU to maintain minimum standards of employment protection to prevent the UK being able to undercut EU states through lower employment standards. Although the UK may be able to negotiate certain exemptions from the full range of EU laws, current EEA EFTA states (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) are obliged to accept the majority of EU regulations without being part of the EU decision-making process, and the UK is unlikely to be much different if this is the path it chooses to follow.

So, please, give me a break from all this Brexit nonsense. Brexit would be disastrous for British workers (and non-workers), for all sorts of reasons. But even the Daniel Hannans of the Tory right would not abolish the principle of holiday pay for all.

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion, assigned wonky at birth, who has been lucky enough to work for two of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and for Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.
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