Brexit: How will workers' rights be affected?

Written by
Tom Ritchie

04 Oct 2016

04 Oct 2016 • by Tom Ritchie

This weekend we finally saw what Brexit will look like. After weeks of peddling the confusing mantra of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, Theresa May outlined how the country will negotiate leaving the European Union. 

One of the hot topics in May’s key note speech at the Conservative convention was workers rights. May promised that the rights afforded to UK employees will continue. She said: “The same rules and laws will apply to them after Brexit as they did before.  Any changes in the law will have to be subject to full scrutiny and proper Parliamentary debate.  

“And let me be absolutely clear: existing workers’ legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law – and they will be guaranteed as long as I am Prime Minister.”

While these reassurances will be welcomed, it is impossible to guarantee that these rights will be enshrined in UK law. Much of the country’s employment law stems directly from being a member of the EU. 

Take the EU framework on discrimination that was enshrined into UK law in 2000, which stipulated that an employer cannot vet applicants based on age, sexual orientation or religion. Implementing and upholding this law would normally require a full passage of a new bill, however due to the overwhelming levels of legislation parliament could face, it would be at the prerogative of ministers to uphold such laws. While May has been bullish about the protection of workers rights, putting such power in the hands of the executive team is worrying. 

May’s speech also raised questions about the rights of existing EU migrants in the UK. The EU may be reticent to negotiate such issues until the ‘Brexit button’ (another of May’s buzz phrases) is pushed in March 2017.

Samantha Hurley, operations director at The Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) feels we may not be able to begin negotiations as soon as the government would like: “What we have now is a definite timetable for Brexit but aside from that it is difficult to predict what Brexit will actually look like.

“While Theresa May has said that she would want to protect the rights of European nationals working in the UK, she will only do so if British citizens are offered the same guarantees across the EU. However, the EU has made it very clear that they will not start any negotiation talks until Article 50 has been invoked and so any predictions would be merely conjecture.”

A potential impasse on the rights of habitant EU nationals could prove to be a sticking point for workers rights as a whole. While the government may want to play their cards close to their chest before sitting down with Donald Tusk and Michael Barnier, Hurley feels it is the role of organisations such as APSCo to keep workers at the forefront of the discussion: “We will be lobbying government hard to remind them just how important the UK flexible market is to the economy but it will be difficult for the government to make any hard and fast promises at this stage as they will obviously not want to show their hand before official negotiations start.”

Theresa May is making all the right promises – it would seem. Not only is she forthright in her claims about workers rights, she has also begun an inquiry into the practices of company’s such as ASOS and Sports Direct that have fallen foul of employment laws. But without a clear path forward in the negotiations with the EU, it would appear such guarantees are built on false ground. While we may have a better idea of what Brexit ‘means’, it’s clear that we have a long way to go before we fully understand the impact it may have on workers’ rights.