Labour MPs surely can’t support the bonfire of workers’ rights in Boris Johnson’s deal

One of the many compelling reasons to stay in the EU (alongside peace and prosperity) is the protection that workers get from being in the single market.

To create a level playing field, there are minimum standards on things like maternity leave, TUPE (protection if your job is outsourced), working hours and paid holidays. Certainly our current law goes beyond the minimum protections in many ways. However, if we leave the EU, all bets are off. We simply can’t trust the most right wing government in living memory with workers’ rights.

If our rights were safe, surely they would at least have kept in the pretty weak protections Theresa May put in to try and entice Labour MPs to vote for it.

But, no. The author of Article 50, John Kerr, told the Edinburgh March for Europe in September that UK negotiators had asked for all the labour, social and environmental protections to be removed from the Withdrawal Agreement..

The People’s Vote campaign outlined the other day exactly what the differences were. There’s a lot of shall and should in the previous version. Now it’s more “these are a thing.”

The first quote is from Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement

“With the aim of ensuring the proper functioning of the single customs territory, the Union and the United Kingdom shall ensure that the level of protection provided for by law, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in the area of labour and social protection and as regards fundamental rights at work, occupational health and safety, fair working conditions and employment standards, information and consultation rights at company level, and restructuring.”

What Boris Johnson’s legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement says on workers’ rights:

“AIMING at continuing to promote balanced economic and social development in the area, in particular in terms of labour conditions, and continuing to ensure the highest levels of environmental protection in accordance with Union law”

 TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady condemned the proposals and called for MPs to reject the deal:

I understand this is a difficult time. But defending working people’s rights is at the heart of everything trade unions believe in. For the sake of working families now and in the future, we can’t support a deal that will trash those rights. We ask MPs to vote against it.

And our Chuka Umunna made an apt analogy on Twitter:

I simply don’t get how any Labour MP could vote for this deal when it is going to do cause real problems for the people they represent.

Take maternity rights, for example. Even under current circumstances, more than 1 in 10 women faces maternity discrimination. This could affect 54000 women every year.

We should be enforcing the rights we have, not allowing them to be diminished.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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20 Comments

  • Why shouldn’t they violate their central ideology and reason for their very existence? Everyone is doing it. A few years ago the LDs backed the most oppressive mass surveillance regime in the western world as well as CMPs. Why should Labour not get in on the act? I personally like knowing that every UK political party holds no faith with anything they imply, say, broadcast or print. Now we all get to live like intelligence spooks operating in a world of mirrors were no one means what they say, means what they mean, says what they say or says what they mean. From now on take a pin to the polling booth, close your eyes and land the point. The party you land on is probably more likely to act in a manner consistent with your views than the one who says they will. It’s a brave new world of blanket deception and remember that the only way to fix it is to keep doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different outcome: voting.

  • If you want to try to frustrate and cancel Brexit that’s up to you, you won’t succeed because eventually the majority will win. In the meantime you are just making people’s lives a misery. All this stuff about workers rights and the environment is nonsense scaremongering, any government that tried to do it would get voted out, that’s why we have votes albeit you don’t respect them.

  • Peter Martin 20th Oct '19 - 6:04pm

    “One of the many compelling reasons to stay in the EU (alongside peace and prosperity) is the protection that workers get from being in the single market…….However, if we leave the EU, all bets are off……”

    I’m sure we’ve all heard this argument many times. The simple and sad fact of the matter, though, is that many workers currently don’t get much “protection” at all. Either from the UK govt, the single market or EU rules and regulations. As well paid jobs have become scarcer employers know they they have the upper hand. They can afford to flout whatever rules the govt or EU may care to set. For example, if they want to pay less than the minimum wage it is quite simple to put 6 or 7 hours down on a pay slip but require a 10 hour working day.

    This is standard practice in the agricultural industry. EU migrants will usually put up with it. British workers often won’t – which is why they don’t get hired!

    The best protection any worker can have isn’t contained in rules and regulations. It is the ability to quit any job with an exploitative employer and move to a different job. The next best protection is provided by a active and fully functional trades union.

    A supposed “bonfire of workers rights” is quite meaningless for many workers. It is probably a good thing that they are burnt. They aren’t working anyway. At least everyone then knows that British workers aren’t the molly coddled beings of right wing imagination. The case for full restitution of Trades Union rights and the restoration of conditions for full employment becomes much stronger.

  • A few points on workers’ rights in the UK:

    (1) The UK doesn’t need to be an EU member state in order that workers’ rights are protected. However, it is true that for many years EU law rights have run ahead of anything being done on workers’ rights in the UK. Why: the brutal truth is that the average UK MP doesn’t care a great deal about workers’ rights because he/she is more likely to be receiving a Deliveroo order, using an Uber, or getting a delivery from Hermes than he/she is to be a delivery or hire car driver. There’s a further class aspect to this insofar as MPs of all parties, including Labour, are increasingly likely to be from affluent/educated backgrounds and not have friends or close acquaintances who work in precarious and low paid jobs.

    (2) Contrary to what Peter Martin says, EU migrants don’t get jobs because they are more willing to work for exploitative employers than UK born people. EU migrants are renting in the private sector for many years after they arrive in the UK whereas the UK born people they are competing with (or not competing with) for employment are generally in heavily subsidised council housing. EU migrants get the jobs because they have, in general, less absenteeism and work harder. However, Peter Martin is quite correct that there is little meaningful enforcement of workers’ rights in the UK, and certainly no pro-active enforcement at all. The reason for this takes up back to my first point – the MPs don’t care because for them those who work in low paid and precarious jobs are generally immigrants, many or most of whom don’t have voting rights. The UK has a metic class of over 2 million EU nationals over 18 and entitled to settled status but without voting rights in general elections (and who weren’t entitled to vote in the 2016 EU membership referendum).

  • The “workers’ rights” argument for Remain is one of its proponents weakest arguments, if not an outright counterproductive one.

    To start with, it’s basis is rooted in nannying centralisation. Basically that the plebs in lower tiers of government (in this case the Westminster Parliament) can’t possibly be trusted to make the “correct” decisions, so us enlightenment guardians (in this case the EU) will take away decision making responsibility away from lower tiers of government, because those lower tiers of government (and the people who elect them) don’t know what’s good for them, and we do.

    Basically what the Conservatives and Labour have been doing when in national government to local government; taking power away and refusing to give it back.

    So it comes across very badly to play this same game vis a vis the EU and national governments. It shows remarkable inconsistency and a revelation of actually having no values that guide decision-making at all. Not inspiring.

    Furthermore it plays right into Leavers’ hands. You’re basically admitting the EU is using brute force to control the UK overruling wishes of its national legislative and executive government, giving currency to their stupid “Take Back Control” nonsense.

    So sad therefore to see this argument rearing it’s ugly head again. It did enough damage during the Referendum campaign.

  • Nigel Jones 20th Oct '19 - 9:02pm

    Is it not the role of the EU to ensure a level playingfield for business across all nations ? Is that not the reason for the EU’s involvement in working conditions for people ? Is it not also in the interests of working people that there is no excessive difference in these matters across nations ? We have long seen jobs go overseas where workers’ pay and rights are so much poorer than in our own country. We have seen the rise of the Fairtrade movement to try to counter some of this.
    I see no reason to suggest that across the EU there should not be some conformity of arrangements for the conditions for workers. The last thing we want is a race towards the USA’s methods under which too many people work excessive hours; we have already gone far enough in that direction.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Oct '19 - 10:10pm

    “The last thing we want is a race towards the USA’s methods under which too many people work excessive hours; we have already gone far enough in that direction.”

    Seconded

  • @Nigel Jones

    No actually. Should Bulgaria raise it’s minimum wage from 1.7 euros per hour to be on part with ours? Or should Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark be forced to legislate for minimum wages (currently they have none)? Or should all minimum wage levels be abolished in line with Scandinavia? Doing any of these would “level” the playing field for businesses and ensure there aren’t differencea between member states.

    At the end of the day, employment law and rights should very much be devolved matters to member states and not centralised to the EU. It was excessive centralisation to the EU that gave ammunition to the Brexit brigade in the first place, leading to the Brexit mess the country has now

  • Peter Martin 21st Oct '19 - 7:29am

    @ Rob Cannon,

    “……whereas the UK born people they are competing with (or not competing with) for employment are generally in heavily subsidised council housing. ”

    Just where are these local authorities which are offering “heavily subsidised council housing” to UK born people? Please don’t keep this sort of of vital information to yourself. I’m sure there are many people who would be interested to know. Not that I would agree that council housing should be restricted to UK nationals. Anyone who is legally resident should be able to apply.

    The idea that EU workers have ” in general, less absenteeism and work harder” also needs to be challenged. When a company relocates its production from the UK to Eastern Europe it’s not generally because it expects a better and more productive workforce. It’s generally because it expects a cheaper workforce.

    It’s probably true that a an exploitative employer in the UK can expect that from a predominantly EU recruited work force but that is entirely consistent with my previous comment. A UK workforce is much less likely to be subservient an employer who is trying to flout the system.

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '19 - 8:39am

    Whenever people talk about an “independent U.K. striking trade deals around the world” I think of Queen Elizabeth 1 turning a blind eye to sailors like Drake and Frobisher in their little ships harrying the mighty Spanish galleons on the high seas and stealing their gold and treasure, not forgetting the raiding of a few ports on either side of the Atlantic – or so the story goes. Given the tendency of the nations of the world to gather together in trading blocs I don’t think it will be quite as easy for us to plunder the treasures as Drake and co found it in the first Elizabethan Age.

    So it looks quite possible that Johnson’s Deal might just stagger over the line soon after which, if nobody is prepared to support a unity government following the moving of the almost inevitable Confidence Motion, we could be in for a General Election, where a partially grateful nation bestows a workable majority on the Tories to enter the next round of talks with the EU.

    Then, I guess, as Yogi Berra famously said, it could be “déjà vu again”!

  • If John Marriott is correct and there is a General Election immediately after the Johnson deal gets through, whether we like it or not, I’m afraid the Liberal balloon will probably burst simply because so many people have simply had enough of the ongoing uncertainty.

    As after a divorce, people come to the point where they want/need to get on with their lives.

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '19 - 9:42am

    @David Raw
    Right on, David. Your talk of divorce reminded me of what that Irish born SNP lady said on Question Time last week. Her description of the state of the divorce was where the other partner was sleeping in the spare room. I reckon that can be a really lonely place to be at any time!

  • Yeovil Yokel 21st Oct '19 - 10:00am

    “As after a divorce, people come to the point where they want/need to get on with their lives.” True, David, but this is not a conventional ‘clean-break’ divorce. When a couple sign a decree absolute they don’t then face years of negotiating to form relationships with a welter of new partners, including the ones they’ve just left! If we leave the EU with a Johnson Deal, a May Deal, or any other deal, we’ll face years more of this depressing mental torture.

    As for you and John Marriott’s apparent determination to see a cloud behind every silver lining – or perhaps you think you’re simply being realistic, and you may be right – the fate of Johnson’s deal very much hangs in the balance. It could be substantially amended in Parliament, which would require renegotiation, and there is growing support amongst MP’s for a confirmatory referendum. There are too many ingredients in the witches’ brew to clearly divine an outcome, including the fate of the Lib Dems’ current strategy (which I happen to think is correct). The one thing I AM clear about is that, having listened to numerous MP’s and ministers being interviewed during recent weeks, I do not trust one sentence that issues from the mouth of a Conservative who still retains the Whip.

  • Personally, I suspect that if the deal staggers through voters will show Johnson the gratitude they showed Churchill after WWII. Being stuck in limbo is much more helpful to the Conservative Party’s electoral chances because they can keep pitting parliament against the electorate. Johnson is the product of the referendum and elections are fought on multiple issues, not just one issue. The big mistake both sides are making is assuming the electorate is defined by the European question, when actually they’ll vote on wages, policing, benefits, health, education and so on, mostly governed by personal circumstances. Outside of the political sphere of Westminster, blogs and the press people are just doing what they always do. They’re not engaged in pitched battles in Sainsbury’s or manning the barricades at Primark or hunting their foe down, revolutionary pamphlet in one hand and pitchfork in the other, in Berwick-Upon-Tweed

  • Arnold Kiel 21st Oct '19 - 1:20pm

    The question for Labour MPs is in my view not what is written in a Johnson-deal, but whether to allow one to pass, irrespective of its content. Once (any) Brexit becomes an irreversible fact, LibDems will lose all “borrowed” remain-votes, and the GE is, again, down to a popularity-contest where Johnson is ahead. He is not only a better campaigner than May, he is also Britain’s most reckless liar, which will go a long way towards matching Labour’s spending promises.

    Letting Johnson’s deal pass means in essence 5 years of a right-populist Government, free to agree or wreck any EU-deal they like. Therefore any Labour-support would be absurd, and has nothing to do with some inconsequential fig leaf workers rights phrases.

  • @ Yeovil Yokel “As for you and John Marriott’s apparent determination to see a cloud behind every silver lining”.

    Not so, my Yokel friend. I believe John and I have over fifty years experience of winning and holding Council seats between us, and we’ve both been parliamentary candidates with what at the time was reasonable success. It might – I say might – just be that we have acquired finely attuned ears to the electorate over those years. How, I wonder, does your experience compare ?

    Caron asks, “Labour MPs surely can’t support the bonfire of workers’ rights”. I don’t think they do, Caron, certainly according to my MP and to Keir Starmer… and it’s a tad naughty to suggest that they do.

  • marcstevens 21st Oct '19 - 5:23pm

    Funnily enough trade unions, and the one I am a member of, are very concerned about the erosion of workers’ right should the UK leave the EU with no deal or a deal one worse than being a member of the EU. It says as such in my latest newsletter. Try telling my partner that she doesn’t benefit from the protection of EU rules and regulations. Without the Working Time Directive she would be forced to work ever longer hours without a break, something this current government is in favour of when it all gets watered down. There is a lack of enforcement when it comes to employers flouting the minimum wage and I don’t get the impression that this government is too bothered.

  • Peter Martin 21st Oct '19 - 9:02pm

    @ marcstevens,

    The working time directive is substantially weakened by allowing an opt out clause.

    Theoretically, as a worker, you can be asked by your employer to opt out, but you can’t be sacked or treated unfairly for refusing to do so. Theoretically.

    https://www.gov.uk/maximum-weekly-working-hours/weekly-maximum-working-hours-and-opting-out

  • marcstevens 22nd Oct '19 - 6:13pm

    Not weakened enough for my partner’s union to ensure she is not forced to work extra hours than those contracted and that rest breaks are taken.

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