Brexit: 10 ways the EU protects British workers' rights

Leaving the EU means giving up safeguards on employee protections. Here is what could be at risk

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The Independent Online

Theresa May has outlined plans for a so-called hard Brexit – one in which the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union. 

It means many of the workers’ rights that have been won over many decades will no longer be protected by EU law and could potentially be abolished at any point. According to the House of Commons Library, a “substantial component” of workers’ rights in the UK comes from EU law.

In truth the current government is unlikely to scrap many, if any, of the rights – not least because Theresa May has promised that workers’ existing protections will be guaranteed while she is Prime Minister. The Government’s Great Repeal Bill will also convert all EU laws, including the ones relating to employment rights, to UK law – at least for now.

The risk is how easy it would be, in theory, for a future government to get rid of those rights. Many hard-fought protections could be scrapped with just a simple vote of Parliament. Others stem from decisions made by the European Court of Justice and will no longer be relevant after Brexit because British courts will no longer have to follow ECJ decisions.  The EU prevented any UK government overriding worker’s rights – Brexit means that protection will no longer be there. 

Here are ten of the rights that could be under threat.

Limits on working hours

Introduced in the UK in 1998, the EU’s working time regulations mean employees cannot be forced to work more than an average of 48 hours a week. Workers can choose to opt out, and there are some exceptions - including emergency service workers, soliders, servants in private households and fishermen - but this EU law helps stop bosses forcing their employees to work unhealthy hours. It also prevents young people being exploited by stating workers under the age of 18 cannot work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. The UK government resisted the controversial working time laws during EU negotiations and a future government could amend them.

Time off

The Working Time Directive also made days off a legal requirement. Companies have to give staff a minimum of 48 hours off work per fortnight and a rest time of at least 11 consecutive hours (12 hours for young people) every day. This is designed to stop workers being exploited and becoming unwell because of being overworked. The rules also include protections for night workers, ensuring they cannot work an average of more than eight hours a day and must be offered free health checks.

Annual leave

EU rules also secure British workers’ legal right to paid annual leave. According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the introduction of these laws gave six million Britons better rights to paid leave, including two million workers who had previously not been entitled to any paid leave at all. EU directives say workers must be given at least four weeks (20 days) of paid leave per year. This is less than the UK’s legal requirement of 28 days of annual leave, but the EU rules acted, until now, as a safeguard against any future government scrapping or reducing annual leave requirements. 

Equal pay

Equal pay between men and women has been enshrined in EU law since 1957. It was also part of UK law before Britain joined the EU but in a more minimal way. The British government had refused to incorporate into law the idea that pay should be based on value, meaning a woman doing a more valuable or senior job could legally be paid only the same as a more junior male colleague.  The UK government amended this only after enforcement action by the EU Commission. 

Maternity rights

EU law guarantees women a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave. The 1992 EU Pregnant Workers Directive also gave women the right to take time off work for medical appointments relating to their pregnancy. It placed a duty on employers to look after pregnant women, including putting them on paid leave if the nature of their work was unsuitable during pregnancy – for example, if it was overly physical and potentially dangerous.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has made clear any discrimination towards a woman because of her pregnancy or maternity leave is sexism and should be treated at such. The ECJ also ruled that employers must give women on maternity leave the same contractual rights as they do to other employees, for example by continuing to pay in to pension schemes. 

Parental leave

EU law says parents must be allowed to take 18 weeks of unpaid leave from work to look after a child.  It also says workers must be allowed additional time off for other family reasons, such as an ill child. 

Anti-discrimination laws

UK laws banning discrimination on the grounds of age, religion or sexual orientation come directly from the EU’s Equal Treatment Directive. EU laws have also made it easier for people claiming discrimination to get justice, by placing the burden of proof in discrimination cases on the alleged perpetrator rather than the alleged victim.

Compensation for discrimination victims

Under EU law, there is no cap on the amount an employer found guilty of discrimination can be ordered to be pay in compensation. This could change after Brexit. The last government commissioned a report on employment law, by venture capitalist Adrian Beecham, that recommended introducing a cap on compensation payments for discrimination. Until now, EU rules have prevented UK government ministers from doing so. Critics say the current law can be crippling for employers but others say it is a reasonable reflection of the huge consequences discrimination can have.

Agency worker protections

EU rules adopted in 2008 say temporary workers must be treated equally to directly-employed staff, including being given access to the same “amenities or collective facilities”.  They also say EU member states should do more to improve agency workers’ access to training and childcare facilities. These regulations are not popular with employers and were resisted by the UK government during EU negotiations.  They could be some of the first EU rules to be scrapped post-Brexit. 

Health and safety

The EU’s Health and Safety Framework Directive forces employers to assess and act to reduce workplace risks. Other rules cover issues such as disabilities, noise and specific regulations for staff working with chemicals, asbestos or other potential hazards. The TUC says 41 of the 65 new health and safety regulations introduced in the UK between 1997 and 2009 came from EU laws. 

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