In September 1988, two now famous speeches set out competing visions of the UK’s role in Europe and Europe’s role in the UK. In the first, the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, addressed the United Kingdom Congress of Trade Unions, presenting the European Economic Community on the basis of a role for workers’ rights and collective bargaining, stating : “The internal market must be designed to benefit every citizen. from the community. It is therefore necessary to improve the living and working conditions of workers and to better protect their health and safety at work. “
Thirteen days later, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addressed the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. Hinting at the Eurosceptic reputation that preceded it, Thatcher commented on the audience’s laughter: “If you believe some of the things said and written about my views on Europe, it must be more like inviting Genghis Khan to talk about the virtues of peaceful coexistence. . Indeed, his vision would have made Genghis proud.
According to Thatcher, Europe was made up of sovereign nations sharing a common experience, “for example, the story of how Europeans explored, colonized and – yes, without excuses – civilized much of the world, is a story. extraordinary talent, skill, and courage ”. For her, Europe was a free market project in which there should be no room for “new regulations that increase the cost of employment and make the European labor market less flexible and less competitive with foreign suppliers ”.
In the three decades since these speeches, successive Conservative governments have attacked the UK workers’ rights regime and unions. Whether it is to dismantle sectoral collective bargaining, to make it more difficult to claim unfair dismissal, to introduce labor court costs (later canceled by the Supreme Court), to regulate until the imminent death the ability of workers to strike, the attack by the conservatives was broad – varied and deep.
The quest is intensely ideological, with Matt Hancock, the current health secretary, even admitting to getting into politics to fight “the heavy intervention of health and safety officers.”
However, workers’ rights that derive from EU law – such as the right to paid holidays, protection against discrimination and protection against less favorable treatment for part-time workers, among others – have been largely spared.
What made the rights in EU law so useful to workers is what angered the Conservatives: the rights could not be taken away by a UK government, they were ultimately interpreted by a Luxembourg court which tended to interpret them more broadly than UK courts, and where there was a conflict with UK law, EU law prevailed. As part of the Brexit deal just concluded between the UK and the EU, this is now over.
In the final days of Brexit negotiations, the so-called ‘level playing field’ – designed to ensure the UK does not deregulate its path to competitive advantage – has been one of the last sticking points. For this reason, the agreement contains a “non-regression clause” which obliges the UK not to reduce workers’ rights below their current level, “in a manner affecting trade or investment between the parts”. The focus of labor rights in the agreement has therefore shifted from protecting British workers to protecting European profits.
If the UK violates the provision, the EU can take the matter to arbitration and can ultimately temporarily suspend its obligations under the agreement, for example by imposing tariffs on imported goods, until that the problem is resolved. However, the EU could not impose tariffs at a rate higher than that necessary to correct the distortions caused by the undercutting.
The Brexit deal also foresees a scenario in which the UK’s failure to improve its labor rights at the same pace as the EU leads to a competitive advantage. In this case, the EU can again suspend parts of the agreement. But the threshold is high: the divergence in standards must be “significant”, the impact on trade and investment “substantial” and “based on reliable evidence and not just conjecture or remote possibilities”, and Countermeasures taken must be no more than “what is strictly necessary and proportionate to remedy the situation”, all subject to arbitration.
As the so-called ‘star chamber’ of legal experts from the conservative Brexit hard-right ideologues of the ‘European Research Group’ put it in its statement endorsing the deal: ‘We believe as long as a UK government is ready to be robust and to vigorously defend any arbitration proceedings initiated by the EU, then the rebalancing mechanism is less likely to give rise to a serious and effective constraint on the UK’s practical sovereignty to overhaul our own laws in these areas.
Finally, in the area of workers’ rights, the agreement stipulates that both parties must respect international labor standards such as those contained in the conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), concerning elements such as human rights. unions, health and safety and sick pay, among others.
It is difficult to take these arrangements seriously. The UK has a notoriously poor record in complying with ILO conventions. For example, in its 2017 report, the ILO’s Committee of Experts – an oversight body – said the UK was in breach of a social security convention because of its extremely low levels of sickness benefit.
The UK’s refusal to implement the convention it had ratified was voluntary; as stated by the commission, the UK “expresses no intention to comply with the UK’s obligation to maintain social security benefits at least at the minimum level guaranteed by these international instruments”.
It is inconceivable that the EU is not aware of the UK’s record on international labor standards. The fact that this section of the agreement does not provide for countermeasures in the event of a violation further suggests that the provision is little more than fluff.
However, the weakness of the level playing field does not give the Conservatives complete freedom when it comes to workers’ rights, as there is still the European Convention on Human Rights, which is separate from EU law. Like EU law, the convention has been implemented in the UK – via human rights law – so as to allow UK judges to extend national law where appropriate. necessary to give effect to the rights of the Convention.
For example, the convention extended denunciation rights to judges and union consultation rights to park officers when national law did not provide for it. It’s no surprise, then, that the convention has also angered conservatives in recent years, with successive conservative manifestos promising to repeal, reduce or change human rights law.
Indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced a review of the Human Rights Act, with particular emphasis on “whether the current approach risks leading national courts to be unduly drawn into questions of policy “.
With a pandemic out of control, workers’ rights are crucial not only for the key workers who continue to run the country, but also for the rest of society. For example, an increase in sickness benefits would allow low-paid workers to self-isolate when necessary. Likewise, strengthening health and safety law enforcement would reduce the spread of the virus in workplaces, where people are still allowed to congregate.
Now is the time to improve workers’ rights and their enforcement. Instead, this Brexit deal does the exact opposite, giving the Tories even more freedom to undermine workers’ rights in the UK.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.