With ‘fire-and-re-hire’ raging, will BoJos’ Brexiteers get their way in trampling over workers’ rights?

Mick Rice considers a new way to skin this Tory tiger on work and employment.

With Tory Brexiteers dreaming of turning Britain into a laissez faire paradise, the labour movement needs new strategies to defend worker rights. Already, uber Brexiteers are signaling that they wish to abolish the EU working time directive (notwithstanding that the UK had an opt-out). They want to undercut EU standards and still be able to export to EU countries! Of course, the EU Commission has made clear that such behaviour could result in the imposition of tariffs on British goods. But relying on EU bureaucrats – or even our own Labour MPs – to defend worker rights will not guarantee success. There are other ways of skinning this Tory cat and maintaining our rights. The British union movement must show solidarity with our EU sisters and brothers to defend labour standards. Moreover, we need to protect ourselves against British spiv employers.

Whilst legislation has played an increasing role in industrial relations, it is not its essential characteristic. Abolishing EU regulations does not automatically mean that individual contracts of employment will be amended. In the UK, legislation tends to provide minimum standards. Actual contracts of employment, that is, what workers actually get, are overwhelmingly determined by collective bargaining (or its absence). This means that unions negotiate an agreement with the employer which is then applied to all the workers in the bargaining unit. Quite often, such agreements will be used as benchmarks and applied to workers who are not directly involved. An example would be the voluntary sector as most workers in this sector ‘follow’ the local authority agreement.

So, here is an easy way to incorporate all EU worker regulations into UK contracts of employment. During the next round of wage negotiations get each and every union to demand that contacts of employment should contain the following: ‘Your terms and conditions of employment shall be no less favourable than those who are employed in comparable jobs within the European Union’. This clause can be referred to as the Comparable European Employment Clause (CEEC). In one fell swoop, all European workers’ rights (without any opt-outs) are included in every individual worker’s employment contract.

Contracts of employment are enforceable in the courts and providing you can show that comparable workers in the EU have better conditions then they also apply to you. In practice, applications to the courts, as a consequence of this provision, are likely to be collective applications submitted by a union.

Many decent employers will agree to this provision – partly because employers are often interested in a level playing field in case they are undercut by competitors. Furthermore, there is no immediate cost to the ‘bottom line’ as this is a commitment to protect conditions which are largely already applicable. But there could be many who would not agree to incorporate this clause in their staff contracts of employment. What can we do to make them see sense and behave as decent employers should?

I suggest making a note of all employers who do not agree to CEECs. In the subsequent round of negotiations seek ballot approval for 1 and 2-day per week strike action. Get all those workers who have secured the CEEC to contribute to a levy to support workers’ rights. Use the fund to provide full wage benefit to workers in targeted firms and call them out on strike. Who doesn’t want to be on strike when being paid full wages?

The Tory Westminster Government has realised that devolved administrations might introduce legislation to maintain EU regulations. For this reason, it introduced the UK Internal Markets Act 2020. However, whilst the UK Government may be able to control the legislative purview of devolved administrations, it cannot stymie the role of devolved administrations and, indeed, all public bodies, with regard to their own employer functions. This is easily understood when you think of governments having dual roles. Governments legislate to impose conditions on others but they also make decisions about their own affairs, i.e., they have a legislative role (imposing conditions on others) and a curatorial role (imposing conditions on themselves). So, devolved administrations and other public bodies could adopt the following resolution which would not contravene the UK Internal Markets Act:

This [insert name of public body] agrees that from [insert date] all directly employed staff and all staff employed by bodies that receive funding as a consequence of a budget approval by this [insert name of public body] shall, as a condition of receipt of such funding, have contained within their contract of employment the following: ‘Your terms and conditions of employment shall be no less favourable than those who are employed in comparable jobs within the European Union’.

Further, all contractors providing goods and services to this [insert name of public body] and to any other bodies in receipt of funding as a consequence of a budget approval by this [insert name of public body] shall, as a condition of the contract to supply such goods and services, include a commitment that its staff shall enjoy conditions of employment no less favourable than comparable workers employed within the European Community.

If the Scottish and Welsh parliaments adopted CEEC resolutions, as well as the Northern Ireland Assembly, this would leave the Tory ‘English’ parliament exposed. For this strategy to become reality one prerequisite is needed: union leaders that have at least a little imagination. After a lifetime campaigning in the union movement, I am not holding my breath.

Mick Rice was a research officer for the AUEW engineering union. He is now the secretary of the UNITE Retired Members branch in Glasgow.