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What would Brexit mean for labour rights and exploitation?

June 22, 2016

This Thursday [the 23rd of June] voters in the UK will decide by referendum whether to remain in the European Union or to exit. Despite the information available in the mainstream press, the impact of a British Exit – or Brexit – is largely unknown.  

What is at stake should the UK decide to exit the European Union?

A Leave vote could potentially have serious implications for workers’ rights. As an organisation that promotes the rights of workers, including victims of trafficking for labour exploitation, we have concerns for the future of workers’ rights should the UK vote to leave. The general feeling among human rights groups, migrant rights groups, and trade unionists is that a move toward Brexit spells a turning point for workers’ rights.

Current employment legislation is largely derived from European Union social law. This includes the Working Time Directive, which governs daily and weekly breaks and rest periods and entitles workers to paid annual leave; the Equal Pay Directive, and the Equal Treatment Directive which both require equal treatment for men and women. These laws are potentially vulnerable should Britain exit the EU.

As highlighted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) the UK is signatory to other international treaties, such as some of the ILO conventions, however none carry the weight of laws and directives derived from European institutions[1].

This begs the question: which of the current employment laws, if any would a future UK government retain? Recent legislative changes suggest the future of employment law will be at risk under the current deregulatory agenda. In the event of Brexit, the UK government would have unconstrained freedom to change the laws currently governed by EU social law.

Current tendencies toward a flexible labour market and atypical work schemes have the potential to erode the standards in workplace rights enshrined in national legislation after years of EU membership, which the UK was instrumental in organising. Despite the current rhetoric in mainstream media, the UK is a major player in the European Union, and considered one of the top three decision makers within the EU – the other two are Germany and France. When it comes to the decision-making processes, the UK leads the way. As stated by leading EU law expert Professor Michael Dougan at the University of Liverpool, the European Union “is not something that happens to us; we are major players”[2]. In addressing the problem of human trafficking in particular the UK wants to be a leader, and removing itself from the EU table risks reducing its ability to work collaboratively to end transnational exploitation.

For the most vulnerable groups, such as victims of human trafficking, significant protections are derived from EU directives and regulations, including Directive 2011/36/EU on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims. This Directive provides a baseline for the protection of victims of trafficking, and has been critical in advancing the rights of victims in the UK.  For example, it is likely that without the protection provided by Article 8 of the Directive on non-prosecution of victims, that victims of human trafficking in the UK would still be routinely imprisoned for offences they were forced to commit. The Directive’s provisions on legal assistance have also been instrumental in ensuring that victims have access to the free legal advice they both need and are entitled to in order to protect their rights.

A key objective of FLEX’s work is prevention, and in particular the prevention of labour abuses and discrimination that contribute to workplace exploitation. Labour exploitation can only be effectively prevented if the current national legislature has at its disposal a range of preventative measures and a decision to exit the EU risks some of the key measures to prevent exploitation. Laws on equal pay, working time, health and safety, maternity rights and parental leave, and employment contracts are all crucial and necessary rights guaranteed to workers through membership of the European Union. Should the UK voters decide to leave the EU these rights will be up for grabs and it is the most vulnerable workers who will have the most to lose.