The UK’s future in the European Union (EU) is being decided tomorrow. Here’s a reminder of a few things which European Union law does for human rights.
To be clear, we are only looking here at the EU’s contribution to human rights, not that of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as enforced by the European Court of Human Rights. The EU and the ECHR are distinct legal systems – see our explainer.
For those new to European laws, a great picture guide on how EU laws are made is available here. Much EU law is set out in ‘directives’ – legislation created by the European Parliament and Council which require EU member states to achieve a certain goal by a specific date. The methods of achieving that goal are down to the member states themselves – who therefore have flexibility in how they comply with directives. In practice, member states tend to make new domestic laws to do this.
So, what has the EU ever done for human rights?
1) Harmonising equality laws
EU directives are a major source of UK anti-discrimination law. A key example is the Equality Act 2010. The Act implements four major EU Equal Treatment Directives. The Equality Act is a piece of UK legislation which protects people in the workplace and wider society from discrimination on various grounds (including age, disability, race and sexual orientation).
As well as implementing the EU’s equal treatment rules, the Equality Act was brought in to sort out the complicated mass of domestic anti-discrimination laws – primarily, the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The Equality Act replaced all of these and consolidated the law in one place.
2) Curbing excessive working hours
The EU Working Time Directive, gives workers the right to a minimum number of holidays each year, rest breaks and a right to work no more than 48 hours per week. Excessive working time can be a major cause of stress, depression and other illness. The purpose of the Directive is to protect people’s health and safety.
The Directive applies to all member states but it is possible to opt out of the ’48-hour working week’ and work longer hours. However the Directive also sends a message to employers about what is an acceptable benchmark for working time and what is collectively considered to be excessive.
3) Protecting pregnant women at work
EU law and the Equality Act include special protections for pregnant workers. For example, the law explicitly states that women must not be dismissed from work because of their pregnancy and maternity.
Carole Webb worked for an air cargo company. She was fired after her employer discovered that she was pregnant. The company argued that Carole was unable to do her job because of the pregnancy. The EU’s court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), confirmed that pregnancy discrimination was sex discrimination and the UK’s highest court applied this decision.
4) Protecting people’s personal data
The scale of information available on the Internet is lagree than ever. But this means that people are more vulnerable to having their personal details exploited.
In 1995, the EU brought out a directive which aimed to regulate the processing of people’s personal data. This resulted in the UK passing the Data Protection Act 1998. Under that Act, government bodies and organisations handling personal data have a duty to protect it from misuse or exploitation.
5) Combatting disability discrimination
The EU’s approach is that “disability is a rights issue and not a matter of discretion“. It promotes the active inclusion and full participation of disabled people in society.
Sharon Coleman was the mother of Oliver – a child who suffered from a serious disability. Sharon’s requests for flexible working and unpaid leave to care for Oliver were denied. She eventually felt compelled to resign. The ECJ ruled that Sharon’s rights had been violated – it was illegal for an employer to discriminate against a worker due to their association with a disabled person.
6) Calling out gender and age discrimination
Miss Marshall was a female employee of a UK health authority. She was fired 4 weeks after her 62nd birthday. Her employer’s policy forced women to retire once they over age 60, but men didn’t have to retire until they were 65. The ECJ ruled that the policy of different retirement ages for men and women was discriminatory.
The ECJ has also said that, where there was a clear statistical difference in pay between male and female workers, employers have to show that these differences are not based on sex discrimination.
7) Fighting for the rights of minorities
P was a male-to-female transsexual woman, who worked in Cornwall County Council. She was dismissed from her post after informing her employers that she was undergoing gender reassignment.
The European Court of Justice ruled that the EU equal treatment directive extends to discrimination against a person because they were transsexual and the UK courts applied this decision. This case extended the scope of gender equality to discrimination against transsexual people. It was the first piece of case law, anywhere in the world, which prevents discrimination in employment because someone is transsexual.
Brexit (British exit from the EU) could have a huge impact on our rights and responsibilities in the UK. Learn more with our explainer.