Gill Taylor: The EU has been central to protecting our rights

If the UK left the EU after June's referendum, the government could have a field day when it comes to workers' rights, warns our HR expert

Some people might think employment law happens out of benevolence to workers. Let me enlighten you - employment law happens because governments want it to. Remember, it was the collective bargaining power of the trade unions that gave us the two-day weekend and the bulk of health and safety law.

Some of the older generation remember employment law from before the 1996 "bedrock" Employment Rights Act when "part time" had a definition, working 16 hours a week was an important goal and there was no limit on working hours or a minimum wage.

In 1988, when I started in human resources, the balance of power on employment rights was very much firmly in the hand of the employers, something that changed only after the Labour party's 1997 victory.

If the UK did leave the EU after the referendum, this could have a very significant impact on workers' rights. This government is in favour of a deregulated, flexible labour market with legal protections reduced to a minimum - it could have a field day.

The TUC has sought advice from Michael Ford QC about the potential impact of Brexit on employment and health and safety laws. His view is that EU law has had and continues to have a very significant effect on some important areas of rights at work.

First, discrimination of all kinds is now outlawed under the Equality Act 2010 at all stages of employment, including selection for employment, pay and working conditions, dismissal and treatment post-employment.

The protection of pregnant workers and rights to maternity and parental leave, part-time and fixed-term workers, agency workers, rights under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations and state-guaranteed rights in employers' insolvency are also affected.

EU law provides important rights relating to working time, including rights to daily and weekly rest, the maximum weekly working time, paid annual leave and night working.

There are also legal rights to collective information and consultation, which operate now across a broad range of contexts, including collective redundancies, transfers of undertakings, health and safety and in all undertakings above a certain size.

Many important regulations on health and safety at work are affected, as are other provisions. These include rights to a written statement of terms and conditions, protection of staff in relation to data processing and collection, some limited rights in the EU Charter, and guarantees of legally required terms and conditions to posted workers.

If Brexit happens, says Ford, eventually workers will not be able to enforce EU rights directly and the duty to interpret national law in accordance with EU law will greatly weaken. Most fundamentally, he argues, a future government could simply "reverse legal rulings it did not like".

So one vision of the future is a government with much more freedom to create a deregulated labour market with few employment protections. And all this in the context of much reduced collective bargaining power from the unions, which has traditionally counterweighed the absence of power in the hands of individual workers.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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