United Kingdom: Latest working life developments Q4 2018
The reactions of social partners to the latest developments in the Brexit negotiations, the government’s labour market strategy and a proposed new statutory code on sexual harassment in the workplace are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in the UK in the fourth quarter of 2018.
Brexit talks provoke mixed reactions
On 14 November, a 585-page draft Withdrawal Agreement was published alongside a 7-page outline of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The proposals within the agreement provoked dissent from within the government and the Conservative Party itself, as well as across opposition parties. Most controversial is the proposed ‘backstop’ solution for Ireland and Northern Ireland, which aims to prevent a post-Brexit hard border between the two (i.e. the creation of a single customs territory between the UK and Northern Ireland in the event that a trade agreement is not secured by the end of the transition period in December 2020). The draft agreement states that while the UK and the EU aim to have a trade agreement concluded before December 2020, if this does not occur then the backstop may be jointly extended for an unspecified duration and will apply from the end of the transition period ‘until a subsequent agreement becomes applicable’. Moreover, unilateral withdrawal from the backstop is not permitted: both sides must agree jointly to end it. This has enraged the ‘hard’ Brexiteers, who believe that the UK will be tied into EU membership for decades.
Further, the proposed single customs territory includes ‘corresponding level playing field commitments and appropriate enforcement mechanisms to ensure fair competition between the EU27 and the UK’, including employment standards. The agreement also contains ‘non-regression clauses’, which would prevent the UK from bringing in lower standards in terms of social, environmental and labour regulations. This has caused further dissent from Brexiteers who wish to deregulate further.
The reaction of social partners to the draft agreement has varied. On the employers’ side, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) issued a statement in support of the agreement, asserting that it represents ‘hard-won progress’.  The CBI said that the deal requires all sides to compromise, as this is essential in order for progress to be made and the damaging effects of a no-deal avoided. The confederation also identified the two major benefits of the agreement: avoiding a ‘cliff-edge’ exit and paving the way for a long-term trade deal.
Conversely, the trade unions have been unanimous in their condemnation of the proposed agreement. For example, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Frances O'Grady described the agreement as a ‘blindfold Brexit’, which fails to guarantee jobs or rights at work into the future.  The TUC have called for Prime Minister Theresa May to secure an extension of Article 50, so that a suitable alternative can be found.
- UK Government: Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community
Government sets out plans for ‘good work’
On 18 December, the government published its Good work plan, which builds on its earlier response to Good work: The Taylor review of modern working practices (July 2017). The Taylor review looked at the implications of new forms of work, the rise of digital platforms and the impact of new working models, making 53 recommendations. The Good work plan sets out the government’s proposals for employment law reform, together with feedback from four recent consultations on employment status, transparency, agency workers and enforcement.
The government states that it has accepted the vast majority of the Taylor review’s recommendations and proposes legislative changes
'to ensure that workers can access fair and decent work, that both employers and workers have the clarity they need to understand their employment relationships, and that the enforcement system is fair and fit for purpose.
(UK Government, 2018)'
The planned reforms include:
- drafting detailed proposals to align the employment status tests used in employment law and tax contexts
- introducing legislation to improve the clarity of employment status tests in order to tackle the problem of businesses misclassifying their staff
- giving all workers the right to request a more stable contract after 26 weeks on a non-fixed pattern
- repealing the ‘Swedish Derogation’ for agency workers (i.e. removing the current exemption that means agency workers are not entitled to the same basic pay as comparable employees after a 12-week qualifying period)
- increasing state enforcement protections for agency workers when pay is withheld or unclear deductions are made by an umbrella company
- increasing the maximum penalty at employment tribunals from GBP 5,000 to GBP 20,000 (€5,705 and €22,822 as at 12 February 2018) where there is aggravating conduct by employers
- developing proposals for a new, single labour market enforcement agency
- UK Government: Good Work Plan
- UK Government: Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices
Government commits to tackling sexual harassment in the workplace
On 18 December, the government pledged to produce a statutory code on sexual harassment in the workplace that will make it clear ‘what actions an employer must take to fulfil their legal responsibilities’.  The pledge was in response to a July 2018 report produced by the Women and Equalities Committee (CWEC), a House of Commons select committee, which found that sexual comments, unwanted touching, groping and assault are still ‘widespread and commonplace’ in British industry.
The government stated that the code is necessary in order to combat what it describes as the ‘failure’ of some employers to take the issue seriously. The government will also look at tightening regulations around non-disclosure agreements and will consult on how to ensure workers receive clear explanations.
- House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee: Sexual harassment in the workplace
Uncertainty over the Brexit process remains widespread, with a deal being resoundingly rejected in parliament on 15 January 2019. The Prime Minister faced resistance from within her own party, as well as from the Labour Party and other opposition parties.
With regard to the Good Work Plan, the government has not committed to any timelines nor presented any draft legislation for consultation. Moreover, trade unionists and campaigners say that the proposals do not go far enough – for example, zero hours contracts, low pay and problems relating to Brexit and workers’ rights remain.
Finally, while the CWEC welcomed the announcement of a new statutory code on sexual harassment, the committee pointed out that the government had failed to commit to making it mandatory for employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, or to new sanctions for those who fail to comply with the code.