Workers’ rights under the Tories: the slow reveal

This week has seen the publication of the Brexit White Paper, one day after the vote in the Commons on the Second Reading of the EU withdrawal Bill. As is clear from these pages, I’m resolutely opposed to withdrawal from the EU, but – in this immediate context – I do worry about the ability of the Commons to stand up for itself to the vocal, and evidently in charge, little Englanders when it allows itself to be abused in this way.

Anyway, my more immediate concern here is the issue of workers’ rights, which the government has trumpeted in its 12-point plan. I blogged about the dangers in reference to May’s Lancaster House speech just below, but I’m returning quickly to the issue here because – as we all suspected – things are turning out to be not quite as they seem.

I’m not referring here to the infamous (and now corrected) chart 7.1 which, originally, suffered from an incorrect labelling of the axes and which, as a (surely coincidental) result, made the position look much better than it actually is. Nor am I referring to the contents of workers’ rights themselves – though I do note, firstly, that holiday entitlement, paid maternity leave and parental leave, as the major issues being featured in the White Paper, have come in under recent Labour governments (annual leave, in 1998; extension of paid maternity maternity leave to 39 weeks in 2007; and parental leave (i.e. the extension of the right to fathers) in 2003); and, secondly, that Tory governments, where they have focused on workers’ rights at all, have usually had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the well (and, largely, as a result of developments in the EU) on the grounds that such rights were a ‘burden on business’.

Now, I’m firmly of the view that leopards are not capable of changing their spots. To illustrate what I mean, the relevant section of May’s Lancaster House speech is worth quoting in full:

‘And a fairer Britain is a country that protects and enhances the rights people have at work.That is why, as we translate the body of European law into our domestic regulations, we will ensure that workers rights are fully protected and maintained.

Indeed, under my leadership, not only will the government protect the rights of workers set out in European legislation, we will build on them. Because under this government, we will make sure legal protection for workers keeps pace with the changing labour market – and that the voices of workers are heard by the boards of publicly-listed companies for the first time.’

We would be making a bad mistake were we to see the White Paper as the Lancaster House speech writ large. In the interim weeks, this commitment has been – already – watered down to the point that the White Paper, away from the headlines and in the detail of section 7.3, now commits itself to strengthening rights only ‘when it is the right choice for UK workers’.

This watering down has been pointed out elsewhere – for example by Professor Steve Peers in a particularly good analysis (in spite of the picture credit!) – although he generously attributes this observation to unnamed ‘others’. But it is worthwhile emphasising. A government under intense economic and political pressure, and desperate for a trade deal with a Trump-led US, is, on top of Liam Fox’s deregulatory-inspired views on the issue of workers’ rights (as Peers points out), unlikely to see this as a particularly propitious time in which to be strengthening workers’ rights. I wonder also as regards the precise source of this watering down – i.e. the identity of the minister (Fox, as Business Secretary? or was it May herself?) who was responsible. Most importantly, however, it has given itself a clear reason not to abide by the commitments it appears, on the surface, to be espousing. Weasel words for a weasel government.

Much will depend on how far the withdrawal Bill is amended next week in Committee. It is to be hoped that the Bill will reflect as much of the concerns over workers’ rights of UK trade unions – in my view quite evidently the best judge of what is the right choice for UK workers – as possible. Some sign that the government will actively and meaningfully liaise (and not just consult) with the TUC on this as this ridiculous, undesirable process moves forward would indeed be a good test of the seriousness of its intentions in this regard. But I’m not exactly going to be holding my breath.

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