The Tories have told us that workers’ rights are safe as we leave the EU. However, as an ex-trade union official who had to fight the Tories over 30 years for stronger rights for workers, forgive me if I take these assurances with the largest of pinches of salt.
We heard from numerous Tory Brexiteers during the referendum campaign that they wanted a “low regulation Brexit”.
Iain Duncan Smith pledged to “whittle away” the regulation “burden” with its “intrusions into the daily life of citizens”, Nigel Lawson called for a “massive” regulatory cull and Priti Patel, the former International Development Secretary said:
“If we could just halve the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3bn boost to the economy.”
This fits with their anti-red tape, anti-trade union rhetoric of the last seven years. After all, it was the previous Prime Minister David Cameron who pledged to “kill off the safety culture for good” with another “bonfire of red tape”.
Not long after the decision to leave the EU was made, and the Tories claimed they would “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained”, Melanie Onn, a Labour MP, brought a bill to Parliament that sought to put these words into action. In the event, Tory MPs spoke about radios for more than four hours, so-called “filibustering”, and talked out the bill until time ran out.
We now see an EU Withdrawal Bill before Parliament which seeks to give the government “Henry VIII” powers, which would mean that the Tories would be able to remove protections without the scrutiny of Parliament, a situation we simply cannot allow to happen.
Below are just seven of the numerous examples in British history when the Tories let down British workers by blocking their rights and why they cannot be trusted to protect their rights now.
1. The case of the Eastbourne dustmen
In 1981, the Thatcher government reluctantly agreed to introduce the European Union Acquired Rights Directive into British law. The British Transfer of Undertakings Regulations, or TUPE as it was called, protected the jobs, pay and conditions of employment of workers on transfer from one employer to another.
However, the government shamefully excluded six million public sector workers. This meant that at a time of widespread privatisation by the Conservative government, thousands of those workers whose jobs were privatised suffered huge pay cuts and job losses.
As National Officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (which merged to form Unite ten years ago), I saw the consequences throughout the Eighties and the pain of those facing privatisation with no protection.
Then in 1990, I sat down with the Eastbourne dustmen. Their work cleaning Eastbourne was being transferred to a contractor, UK Waste Control. But they were all being sacked and replaced with cheap labour. One dustcart driver was a reader of the Financial Times and he read an article on the Acquired Rights Directive protecting all workers on transfer – public as well as private – and wondered why that wouldn’t apply to him and his colleagues.
I took their case to the European Court of Justice and the European Commission. The European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs told me:
“Your government has broken the law and we will take action to protect British workers’ rights.”
And we won. In 1993, the Tory government gave in and a shameful decade of mass privatisation with painful consequence for jobs and pay and conditions was brought to an end.
2. Banning strikes at GCHQ, 1984-97
Back in 1984, Margaret Thatcher decided it wasn’t possible for someone to be in a union and be loyal to their country. GCHQ employees in Cheltenham were denied their basic rights and could no longer have the protection of a union at work. Fourteen workers who refused to give up their union membership cards were unceremoniously sacked.
Years of union campaigning followed, with an annual march taking place in the town every January. Thankfully the ban was consigned to history almost as soon as Labour took office in 1997. No worker should ever be denied the right to have their union represent them.
3. Opting out of the Social Charter
The John Major Conservative government opted out of the EU’s Social Chapter during the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991. The chapter provided a bedrock of rights throughout Europe on areas such as workers’ health and safety, equality and working conditions. The Labour Party signed up to the Charter once it was in government in 1997. But as late as 2007, Theresa May wrote an article for Conservative Home claiming that signing up to the Charter showed Labour was “easy on trade unions”.
4. Opposing the National Minimum Wage
The Conservatives bitterly opposed the introduction of the National Minimum Wage (NMW). In 1991, Michael Howard said that “it would destroy between 750,000 and 2m jobs”. When elected in 1997, Labour immediately set up the Low Pay Commission to advise on the level of the NMW and in November of that year, it was introduced.
The Tories, for years, remained opposed to a policy which sought to ensure all workers received a decent basic income. Studies since 1997 proved that the introduction of the NMW had no discernible impact on employment and the Tories eventually dropped their opposition.
5. Red Tape Challenge
In 2011, the government launched the “Red Tape Challenge”. After years of bemoaning unnecessary legislation and “excessive regulation burdening businesses”, the Tories sought to reduce the amount of “red tape” facing companies. They even invited the public to nominate specific regulations which they felt were not working.
Despite such “excessive regulation” including key rights and protections for workers across the country, the Tories – supported by the Lib Dems – wanted to cut as many as possible. The main premise was a “one-in-two-out’ rule which looked to remove two pieces of regulation for each which was added to the statute book. And workers’ rights were up for grabs from the start.
6. Employment tribunal fees
In 2013, the coalition government introduced fees for taking cases to employment tribunals, claiming it would cut “weak and unnecessary cases”. This not only limited access to justice for some of the most vulnerable in society, it also gave some of the most unscrupulous bosses free reign to abuse health and safety and employment law, knowing there was little chance of being called to account.
In the first three years following, cases taken to the tribunal fell by 79 per cent. This especially impacted women, with the number of sex discrimination cases falling by 76 per cent and the level of pregnancy-related cases halved. In July of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the fees were unlawful and the government is now being forced to reimburse all those who had paid them. This is a prime example of a vindictive Tory policy which hurt working people.
7. Trade Union Bill
Once the Tories were elected with an overall majority in 2015, they set their sights on the trade unions and their right to organise and strike. The right to strike is a fundamental freedom in our democracy. Trade unions are the voice of working people and this was an undemocratic and unfair change imposed on the unions which sought to muzzle that voice. A Labour government would repeal the cruel and unnecessary Trade Union Bill.
If anyone thought that they had changed their tune and were prepared to protect workers’ rights post-Brexit, as we leave the EU, the appointment of Martin Callanan as a minister in the Department for Exiting the EU proves they are still the same old Tories.
When he was an MEP in 2012, Lord Callanan told the European Parliament that the best way to deliver growth would be to scrap many of the hard-earned rights British workers currently enjoy, stating that the EU should “scrap the working time directive, the agency workers’ directive, the pregnant workers’ directive and all the other barriers to actually employing people”.
The fact of the matter is the Tories have never cared about workers’ rights and they never will. For 40 years, ever since Britain joined the EU in the Seventies, they have sought to erode protections at every turn while they have been in government, and many of them fought the Brexit campaign with the message that they would erode them yet further.
We will be leaving the European Union and all the protections it brings so we must ensure that workers’ rights are protected and enhanced once this has happened. Only Labour will do that. You cannot trust the Tories with workers’ rights.
Jack Dromey is the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington and shadow labour minister.