What could the EU referendum mean for our rights at work?

At workSMART, we're following the EU referendum campaign closely, as so many workers’ rights in the UK are underpinned by EU rules. If the UK were to leave the European Union, it could mean risking a lot of things we currently take for granted at work.

In the event of a 'Brexit', the UK government would decide which of those rights to keep – and which to reduce or drop altogether. It includes things we take for granted, as well as things we need in emergencies, and wouldn't want to suddenly find weren't there any more:

  • The right to 20 days' paid annual leave a year.
  • The right to not be forced to work longer than 48 hours a week on average.
  • The right to paid time off for antenatal appointments; and protections for pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace.
  • The right to up to 18 weeks' parental leave per child and to time off for urgent family reasons.
  • The right to equal pay for work of equal value between women and men.
  • The right to equal treatment for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers with other employees.
  • The right for workers' representatives to be informed and consulted on significant changes that could affect jobs.
  • The right to high standards of safety at work.
  • Protections for workers affected by outsourcing or business buy-outs.
  • Protections from discrimination in the workplace on grounds of sexual orientation, gender reassignment, age, and religion or belief.

These rights made a big difference to the UK when they were brought in. For example, thanks to the EU law, six million workers gained better paid holidays (two million of whom had previously had no paid annual leave at all). 400,000 part-time workers, most of them women, gained improved pay and conditions when equal treatment rights were introduced. And landmark legal cases with far reaching effects for other workers have resulted from women becoming able to challenge unequal pay.

We've already seen reductions in employment rights pushed through already by the coalition and current Conservative governments - such as increasing the time in a job before you're protected from unfair dismissals (now two years), and introducing high up front fees before you can try to take an employment tribunal case. And if the UK suddenly lost these EU-backed laws from the statute book and had to remake them, it's not too hard to see many of them coming back in a seriously watered down form, if at all.

Unscrupulous employers would be quick to seize on that and reduce conditions for workers, leading over time to a new normal even for people who have been used to getting much better conditions provided as part of their own employment contracts.

As the TUC's Frances O’Grady said:

“Working people have a huge stake in the referendum because workers’ rights are on the line. It’s the EU that guarantees workers their rights to paid holidays, parental leave, equal treatment for part-timers, and much more.

The current government has already shown their appetite to attack workers’ rights. Unions in Britain campaigned for these rights and we don’t want them put in jeopardy. The question for everyone who works for a living is this: can you risk a leap into the unknown on workplace rights?”

If you'd like to find out more about the European effect on the UK's employment rights, you can read the TUC's new report: UK employment rights and the EU