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EU Withdrawal Bill risks increasing vulnerability to labour exploitation

February 22, 2018

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill 2017-19 has just entered committee stage in the House of Lords, where the nearly 400 amendments tabled to the bill will be debated. FLEX has produced a briefing explaining why the Bill risks increasing vulnerability to labour exploitation, and why we support the inclusion of Amendment no. 21 as a way of safeguarding against this.

What is the issue?

The Withdrawal Bill provides the legal basis for implementing Brexit by repealing the European Communities Act 1972 and determining how EU law will be kept or transferred into UK law. As it currently stands, the Bill makes it possible for post-Brexit governments to remove or water down important employment standards without proper parliamentary scrutiny. In doing so, the Bill risks increasing vulnerability to exploitation among all workers in the UK.

A significant proportion of workers’ rights in the UK come from the EU. These include limits on maximum weekly working hours; access to paid annual holidays; equal treatment rights for part-time, fixed-term, and agency workers; maternity and paternity rights; provisions protecting workers from having their contracts changed or terminated due to a company takeover; and various health and safety provisions, among others.

Some of these protections are already part of UK primary legislation, including equal pay and maternity rights. Many others, however, are in secondary legislation – a category of law that is less protected and easier to change than primary legislation – or have not been written into UK law at all. This has not been a problem up until now, because these protections have been underpinned by EU law or supported by judgements of the Court of Justice of the European Union. However, once the UK leaves the EU, this important backing will be lost, and secondary legislation can be used to “chip away” at employment standards.

Why does this matter?

In order to prevent labour exploitation, we must make sure that safeguards and minimum standards for workers are not lost as the UK leaves the EU.

An environment that allows poor working conditions increases the likelihood of labour exploitation. Research by FLEX and the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group has identified a strong link between labour abuses, such as failure to pay minimum wage, and labour exploitation, such as forced labour, slavery and servitude. For example, a worker who is paid poverty wages, and is dependent on this income for survival, will be less able to leave or report abusive or exploitative situations.

The UK already has one of weakest labour law enforcement structures in Europe, which means abusive employers are often able to get away with treating workers badly. The loss or watering down of important employment standards would leave workers in an even worse situation, and risk increasing the likelihood of modern slavery.

The Working Time Directive and the Agency Workers Directive, both of which come from the EU, are particularly important due to the rise in agency work in the UK in general and in particular for migrant workers, who are overrepresented in agency work. Agency workers already have limited employment protections and are at risk of exploitation. Removal of rights, such as maximum working hours, breaks, and the right of agency workers to the same basic terms and conditions as directly hired staff after a 12-week period, would place these workers at even greater risk.

Working time protections are also important because sectors such as cleaning, where shifts are already very long, could be open to excessive hours becoming the norm.

Are rights really at risk?

The Government has stated that “EU exit cannot, and will not, lead to weaker rights and protections in the UK” and that the Withdrawal Bill will maintain the protections and standards that benefit workers. However, unless changes are made to the bill, there is nothing in practice to stop the current or future governments from changing or repealing EU-derived rights and protections for workers. Strong opposition to the Working Time Directive and the Agency Workers Directive, as well as repeated calls from past and present cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, to deregulate the labour market, implies that there may well be an appetite to reduce employment protections post-Brexit.

What should be done?

There is still a chance for parliamentarians to change the Bill, including at committee stage, report stage, and third reading in the House of Lords, when proposed changes to the Bill will be debated (see timetable here). After this the Bill will move back to the House of Commons for potential further changes.

To stop employment standards from being weakened post-Brexit, FLEX is urging members of the House of Lords to vote for Amendment no. 21 to the Bill, which would make sure that “employment entitlements, rights and protection” that come from the EU can be changed in future, but only if the changes do not reduce or weaken these rights and protections

In doing so, the amendment would protect workers in the UK from labour abuses and ensure that Brexit does not lead to a “race to the bottom” on employment rights.