What did the EU ever do for working people?

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Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the IPA

The UK’s often turbulent relationship with the European Union seems to be getting stormier by the day. With UKIP support rising to record levels, the Conservatives have been pushed into an increasingly Eurosceptic position, promising reforms that look impossible to deliver. Our future within the EU looks more uncertain than ever before.

 

Leaving the EU would be disastrous for working people. The argument over the importance of the EU for jobs and investment in the UK is well-known; millions would have their livelihoods threatened if we did pull out. Less understood though is the importance of the EU for rights at work in the UK.

 

Recent research by the IPA has aimed to address this gap. As it has shown, the EU has played a central role in strengthening and expanding workplace rights in the UK. Take for example the right to paid breaks, paid holiday and a maximum working week, or the right to equal treatment for ‘atypical’ workers – the part-time, agency and fixed-term staff who are in fact increasingly typical in today’s labour market. Take the Information and Consultation of Employees regulations that guarantee workers a voice at work, or the TUPE legislation that protects employees whose employer’s business is being sold. These rights have made a real difference to working people.

 

In fact, this is one of the reasons that the EU is so unpopular with those on the right. Along with the free movement of labour, it is the protection that the EU offers working people that so irritates Eurosceptics. Having these rights enshrined at a European level means they can act as a bulwark against competition driving down employment standards in a ‘race to the bottom’. While the Coalition have pursued a deregulatory agenda and slashed employment rights, it is only the rights protected by EU legislation that have escaped unscathed.

 

But are we over-regulated and over-burdened by ‘EU red tape’? In explaining why Britain might be better off out, Boris Johnson recently decried the ‘back breaking’ weight of EU employment regulation that is helping to fur the arteries to the point of sclerosis.’ Of course, this is complete nonsense. The UK still has one of the least regulated labour markets in the developed world and employees in this country are far less protected than those in most of Europe. And although employers may grumble about employment regulation, the vast majority see it as a price worth paying for access to the single market.

 

The union movement has often had an uneasy relationship with the EU. Initially suspicious of the European project, unions were won over by Jacques Delors’ inspiring vision of a ‘Social Europe’ that protects and enhances workers’ rights and prosperity. However, this enthusiasm seems to have cooled recently. With the lack of any significant new social legislation, as well as the role of the EU in supporting austerity and perceived threats to collective bargaining from the Viking and Laval judgements, unions have becoming increasingly equivocal about our membership of the EU. Some, notably the RMT, are actively campaigning for the UK to leave. It’s a strange situation when a supposedly progressive trade union finds itself on the same side of the argument as Farage and co.

 

It is more important than ever for trade unions to engage with this debate. Unions have a vital role to play in countering reactionary Eurosceptics who would renegotiate or withdraw from the European Union in order to slash employment rights. The union movement needs to speak up for the EU, and highlight the immeasurable benefits that membership of the EU has brought working people. From protection against discrimination and rights for working parents; to paid holiday and voice at work, the EU has made the workplace fairer and better. It has delivered real, tangible benefits for working people. The EU is not perfect, but trade unions need to continue to fight for the vision of a Social Europe.

 

Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the IPA. He writes in a personal capacity. The findings of the research will be discussed at an event on 27th November, hosted by Lord John Monks, former General Secretary of the TUC and ETUC. For more details and to reserve a place, see here.

 

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