03 February 2017
Britain could be pressured into becoming a low-regulation economy with much weaker workers’ rights if action is not taken to protect and build on current employment law.
This is according to Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, who spoke to the Guardian on a nine-month inquiry into the UK’s gender discrimination laws the charity has launched.
“This fear of a race to the bottom and becoming this low-regulation, low-tax economy is, I think, a very real one,” she said.
Indeed, both Philip Hammond and Theresa May have indicated they will consider making the UK a low-tax economy, designed to attract external investment, if a good-enough deal cannot be made with the EU. It is likely such a business-friendly environment would also come with pressure to reduce workers’ rights.
Smethers noted that May has promised to protect workers’ rights, but expressed caution as to how likely it is this vow will be kept.
“The real worry we’ve got is that those kind of assurances are actually quite superficial, and they are probably a second order commitment compared to the need to secure a competitive economy, and how we compete if we’re outside the trading bloc,” she explained.
“The prime minister may well mean it now when she says it … but I think she’s going to be forced into a corner where it’s going to be very hard for her to retain that, when the pressure is to compete on other terms.”
Indeed, retired high court judge Dame Laura Cox, who will lead the inquiry, warned that British workers could face losing pregnancy and maternity rights, part-time workers’ rights, equal pay for work of equal value if the government decides to create a low-regulation economy.
The Fawcett Society does not only want to protect the rights women have today, however; it wants to improve on them.
“Organisations need to have more responsibility placed on them. It’s very difficult for the individual woman to bring a claim,” she said, adding that reform should be “about trying to create a forward-looking idea of what country we want to be”.
Indeed, the Institute for Employment Rights is calling for the reform of labour law in a post-EU UK to improve rather than weaken workers’ rights.
Our Manifesto for Labour Law – 25 recommendations for the restructuring of employment law, which has been adopted by the Labour Party – proposes shifting the focus of the law from statutory minimums that provide a floor for employers to aim for; to wages and conditions collectively agreed at both sectoral and enterprise levels. This would bring the UK in line with workers’ rights frameworks in some of Europe’s strongest economies and would provide the upward pressure on wages and conditions that is needed to curb the worst excesses of the burgeoning ‘gig’ economy, as revealed by the shocking revelations about conditions at retailers such as Sports Direct and Boohoo.