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15 January 2021

What the new row over workers’ rights really tells us

While Brexit may have happened, rows about Europe haven't gone anywhere

By Stephen Bush

Is the government preparing to rip up workers’ rights? The FT reveals that the government is drawing up plans to dismantle a raft of European regulations, including the working time directive, now that the United Kingdom has left the European Union.

New Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said that the UK is “not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights” and will “protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them” which, you will note, is not a denial that the measures in question are at risk.

Many, perhaps most, of our readers will at some point in their careers have signed away one of their rights under the working time directive, that to a maximum 48-hour week. But the bulk of the directive, including the requirement that every worker be given an 11-hour break in every 24-hour period, the obligation to offer rest breaks and so forth: those cannot be legally opted out of, though of course there are parts of the labour market where these protections are merely theoretical.

Would such changes trigger EU tariffs on British goods and other sanctions under the terms of the free trade agreement? Not necessarily. For that to happen, the EU would have to bring a case and successfully demonstrate that the United Kingdom was accruing an unfair advantage. (And, as it happens, when the business department looked at the evidence in 2014, it concluded the directive’s impact was positive overall for British businesses.)

It comes against a backdrop of growing discontent from British fishermen about the terms of the Brexit deal, increasing concerns from business about the non-tariff barriers the deal puts in place, and growing rows within Northern Ireland’s parties about the impact of the sea border. While Brexit may have happened, rows about Europe haven’t gone anywhere and will likely shape British politics after coronavirus just as much as they did before.

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[see also: What’s more important – the theatre industry, or the fishing industry?]