Industrial relations

United Kingdom: Latest developments in working life Q4 2019

Recent political developments, the progress of Brexit and the omission of the commitment to protect EU-derived employment rights from the December 2019 EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in the United Kingdom in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Conservative government majority has implications for Brexit

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government gained an overall majority in the December 2019 election. With 80 seats in parliament and with internal remain-backing critics removed from the Conservative Party, the prime minister is expected to ‘accelerate the passage of the legislation through parliament’. [1] Accordingly, on 19 December, the government published a revised European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (WAB), which differed from the October version of the bill. This revised bill did not include the concessions previously made to opposition parties, leading many commentators to express fears that the ensuing legislation paves the way for a ‘harder Brexit’. [2]

Question mark over workers’ rights in new employment bill

The December WAB removed clauses contained in the October version that pledged alignment with the EU on workers’ rights and the future safeguarding of those rights. Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, these rights constituted ‘retained EU law’, and would have continued to apply after the UK leaves the EU. However, unless there are provisions about maintaining existing workers’ rights in a future UK–EU agreement, these rights could be amended by domestic legislation post-Brexit, despite commitments in the (non-binding) Political Declaration negotiated between the UK government and the EU.

The UK government has stated that such protections will be enshrined in another bill. On 19 December, the government outlined its plans for a new employment bill in the Queen’s speech. However, it is not clear how the government intends to protect existing workers’ rights in the proposed bill. The previous Conservative government’s plan to have a separate Workers’ Rights Bill that was concerned solely with protecting EU-derived rights seems to have been scrapped. The Queen’s speech does not explicitly refer to retaining EU-derived rights and suggests that the new employment bill will encompass a range of additional employment-related issues. These issues include the creation of a new single enforcement body, the introduction of a new right for all workers to request a more predictable contract, the extension of redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy/maternity discrimination, and the introduction of an entitlement to one week’s unpaid leave for carers.

Commentary

If the WAB is ratified and an implementation period until 31 December 2020 is agreed, the UK will not be able to legislate to reduce EU workers’ rights during this period. However, the proposed employment bill would need to be passed by the end of the implementation period to protect EU-derived workers’ rights. As yet, there has been no indication as to when the bill will be introduced, or its position on EU-derived rights. In October 2019, the Financial Times reported that the government was looking to deregulate workers’ rights post-Brexit. [3]

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) criticised the Queen’s speech for falling short on Prime Minister Johnson’s pre-election promises to support workers, stating its belief that many in the cabinet are desperate to drive down labour standards. On 23 December, the TUC published the findings of its post-election poll of 2,975 working adults, which found that 73% of respondents want the government to protect and enhance current workplace rights guaranteed by the EU. [4]

 


Footnotes

  1. ^ Independent (2019), General election: Boris Johnson to accelerate Brexit plans as Tories head for landslide , 13 December.
  2. ^ The Guardian (2019), Queen's speech: PM points to harder Brexit and 10-year rule , 19 December.
  3. ^ Financial Times (2019), Fears rise over post-Brexit workers’ rights and regulations , 26 October.
  4. ^ TUC (2019), Johnson under pressure to deliver on workers’ rights, post-election poll reveals , 23 December.

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