The UK is currently one of 28 member states of the European Union (‘EU’). But on 23 June 2016, the UK will hold a referendum to decide whether to stay in or leave the EU.
As a member of the EU, the UK is subject to laws made at the European level. EU law has been the driving force behind several important changes to UK law, including the creation of many rights for workers.
Recently, the UK’s national trade union federation – the Trades Union Congress (‘TUC’) – published a report which considers the possible effect on workers’ rights if the UK leaves the EU. The report aims to assess the impact of EU membership on employment rights in the UK and concludes that there is a potential threat to workers’ rights if the UK were to leave the EU.
Which rights might be affected if the UK leaves the EU?
1. The right to not be forced to work longer than 48 hours a week on average
A piece of EU legislation (the Working Time Directive) provides for a maximum 48-hour working week in order to protect the health and safety of workers.
Although UK workers can opt out of the 48-hour limit, the TUC report shows that this right has reduced the number of people working excessive hours in the UK. Since the Directive was implemented, 700,000 fewer people work more than 48 hours a week.
2. The right to 20 days’ paid annual leave a year
The EU Working Time Directive also provided UK workers with a right in law to paid annual leave (that is, holiday pay) for the first time.
This resulted in 6 million workers gaining better entitlements to paid holiday, 2 million of whom were not previously entitled to any paid holiday at all.
3. Rights for pregnant women, new mothers and working parents
EU laws have been a key driver of new maternity and parental leave rights in the UK. For example, an EU law (the Pregnant Workers Directive) gave women paid time off for antenatal appointments and introduced additional protections for pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace.
The Court of Justice of the European Union, to which workers can apply if they feel that their rights under EU law are not being protected by the UK courts, also made it clear that treating women unfavourably because of pregnancy or maternity leave is direct sex discrimination.
For families, another EU law (the Parental Leave Directive) increased working parents’ entitlement from 13 to 18 weeks’ parental leave and provided a right for employees to take time off for urgent family reasons.
4. The right to equal pay for work of equal value between men and women
The right to equal pay for equal work is a fundamental right under the EU Treaty (Article 157) and can be relied on directly in UK courts.
The UK’s Equal Pay Act 1970 pre-dated the UK joining the EU, but did not cover equal pay for work of equal value. EU law made it easier to challenge the undervaluation of women’s work.
5. Protections from discrimination in the workplace
The UK already had sex and race discrimination laws in place when it joined the EU, but EU legislation has improved domestic discrimination law in a number of ways. For example, the definitions of direct and indirect discrimination and harassment in EU anti-discrimination laws have widened the scope for challenging discriminatory practices.
So, what does all this mean?
The above is not an exhaustive list of the EU-derived rights which the TUC claims could be affected if the UK leaves the EU. The report points out that certain rights, such as equal treatment rights for agency workers and rights to be consulted on changes in the workplace, were resisted by UK governments and could be vulnerable if the UK were to leave the EU.
The report concludes that the overall contribution of EU employment rights to UK workers is substantial. TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady said: “Working people have a huge stake in the referendum because workers’ rights are on the line. It’s the EU that guarantees workers their rights to paid holidays, parental leave, equal treatment for part-timers, and much more. These rights can’t be taken for granted. There are no guarantees that any government will keep them if the UK leaves the EU.”
You can learn more about what human rights do for workers by taking a look at our ‘Rights At Work’ resources here.