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Workers’ rights under threat in government Bill on EU-derived rights

October 25, 2022

Dugald Johnson

Today, a Bill which threatens to undermine fundamental workers’ rights is passing through its second reading in Parliament. The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is part of a Government drive to free businesses from what it describes as “EU red tape”, removing “excessive and unnecessary regulations”, by using Brexit as an opportunity to advance an agenda of deregulation. This draft legislation goes further and faster in removing remnants of the EU from the UK’s statute books than had been anticipated even by the most Eurosceptic voices, raising serious concerns about its potential impact on workers’ rights.

What does the Bill do?

The Bill would put an expiry date on all “EU-derived legislation”. Unless the Government takes action to save a particular piece of legislation, thousands of rights and regulations which have their origins in the EU would automatically be repealed at the end of 2023. The Government has identified over 2500 pieces of EU-derived legislation on its “dashboard”, but there are likely to be many more. Given the sheer number, important social and environmental protections may simply disappear without consideration on their own merits.

Besides this sweeping “sunset clause”, the Bill also continues this Government’s reputation for seeking to avoid the scrutiny of Parliament, handing itself extensive powers to amend EU-derived legislation through secondary legislation. For example, one clause of the Bill gives ministers the power to replace pieces of retained EU law with regulations which it considers “appropriate”. In short, Parliament would be signing away its ability to properly scrutinise the Government’s erosion of key protections.

Hard-won workers’ rights at risk

Coupled with the Government’s radically deregulatory agenda, these measures pose a serious threat to fundamental workers’ rights in the UK. Many of these rights originate in the EU: rights to paid holiday, maximum working times and rest breaks; agency workers’ and part-time workers’ rights; certain equal pay rights; and the protection of a worker’s rights when their job is outsourced.

Crucially, it is the workers in the lowest paid and most insecure jobs who will be most severely affected by the removal or weakening of these basic rights. For example, FLEX’s research into the risk of labour exploitation in the cleaning sector showed that cleaners are more likely to work part-time and have seen their pay and conditions worsened by the rise of outsourcing. It is these workers who will be most at risk under this Bill.

Employment rights not only serve to ensure fair and respectful treatment, they also act as a vital safeguard against serious exploitation and trafficking. Without robust and enforceable employment rights, vulnerable workers are powerless in the face of exploitative employers. By allowing for the weakening of workers’ rights, this Bill will put workers at increased risk of serious labour exploitation.

Creeping dismantling of rights

The Government’s deregulatory agenda is clear; if the Bill passes, Parliament’s ability to resist further deregulation will be severely limited. The risk is that, rather than a big ‘bonfire’ of protections, ministers will gradually salami-slice away key rights over the next 18 months via obscure secondary legislation.

By current standards, a day is a long time in politics, never mind a week. It therefore remains to be seen whether the new Prime Minister will take a different approach to retained EU law. What is clear is that this Bill threatens instability and deregulation at the expense of low-paid workers, as well as the environment. The Government must scrap it and rethink.