What Brexit means is demonstrated clearly by fresh Tory plans to assault workers’ rights.
The government fought hard for the right to diverge from EU standards for a reason: and workers’ rights are among its first targets.
The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is putting together plans to scrap the 48-hour week “working time directive”; cut rest break entitlements; cut holiday pay entitlements by excluding overtime pay from how they’re calculated; and end the requirement for employers to keep proper records on working hours.
Labour movement leaders, both unions and Labour Party, have denounced these plans. Maybe the Tories will retreat for now. Despite employer complaints’ about over-regulation, most of the big employers aren’t clamouring for immediate changes. They have learned to live with the mild EU standards.
The more the labour movement show itself willing to fight, the more likely a quick retreat.
“Unions will resist attack on workers’ rights”, declared the Morning Star. But unless the government folds pretty much immediately, the risk is that the changes will go through fast with limited protest, while union leaders hope for EU measures to retaliate against the UK’s divergence. Our movement’s leaders have a long record of presenting EU structures and rules as more a bulwark for workers’ rights than they are — and then failing to fight Brexit and its open door to scrapping those rules.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has claimed the UK “has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world”. But Tony Blair was nearer the truth. He called Britain’s “the most restrictive union laws in the Western world”. Britain also has worse sick-pay rights than any of the EU27 bar Malta.
Right now we have to defend the EU-derived regulations Kwarteng and his comrades are attacking, and then improve them seriously. They are no sort of gold-standard either. They represent some very basic minimum workers’ rights — a minimum the Tories want to push down further.
The labour movement should demand not just maintenance of EU standards, but a levelling up of workers’ rights to the best across Europe — so we have the same working-hours rights as workers in Finland, and the same right to strike as workers in France.
More broadly, this is a reminder that Brexit is not “done”. It is set to become what the Financial Times called a “negotiation without end”.
The Tories’ class-war agenda is not limited to Brexit-connected issues, of course; but it is closely intertwined with Brexit. We must expose this reality and mobilise opposition to every aspect of the Tories’ plans — on workers’ rights, environmental standards, migrants’ rights and more besides.