Posted by Malcolm Gregory, Partner
Workers’ rights to suffer in Brexit deal?
A significant proportion of UK employment law comes from the EU. A number of worker protections, such as rules around discrimination rights, collective consultation obligations and duties to agency workers have been incorporated into UK law.
With the UK now having officially withdrawn from the European Union and no longer being subject to the supremacy of EU Law, a number of news institutions reported last week on supposed government plans to shake-up workers’ rights.
What rights are we talking about?
The Working Time Regulations 1998 set out that employers are under an obligation to ensure that workers generally do not exceed a 48-hour average working week (including any overtime). Other EU-led employer obligations include maintaining accurate records of workers’ daily working hours, allowing workers a minimum 20 minute rest break when working more than 6 hours a day and including overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements.
The Government has denied that any protections are under threat, insisting that it has no intention of reducing workers’ rights. In addition, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which now governs the relationship between the UK and EU prohibits either party from reducing its labour and social levels of protection ‘in a manner affecting trade or investment between the parties’ below what was in place at the end of the transition period’.
What changes are we likely to see?
If any changes to workers’ rights in the UK were considered to affect trade or investment between the parties, it could potentially lead to retaliatory measures from Brussels – such as the imposition of tariffs, for example. It is likely that if the Government did seek to make changes, these would stem from existing concessions. UK workers are already allowed to opt out of the 48-hour working week, so removal of the limit entirely could arguably allow UK businesses the flexibility to maintain output in the face of European competition.
With the UK economy still very much recovering from the effects of the pandemic and many employees returning to furlough leave following the third national lockdown, it is unlikely that the Government would look to remove worker protections in the near future. Once the dust settles, however, it may only be a matter of time before changing rights previously enshrined in EU law becomes fair game in a new Britain free to diverge from EU rules.
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