In the face of recent political wrangling there's been little press coverage of the fact that UK anti-discrimination legislation all derives from EU law.
Yet voting to leave would risk losing the protection accorded to valuable rights accorded by the range of social policy Directives and Treaties which underplay our laws. In a post-Brexit world, existing UK discrimination legislation could be interpreted and developed very differently.
This is important to consider now, before the forthcoming EU referendum.
The case to remain
To date, the existing provisions relating to pregnancy discrimination, equal pay and part-time workers discrimination, to name but a few, have had a cost for business. It would be naive to assume that a future Conservative Government wanting to continue the recent trend of deregulation and cutting red tape would leave intact current jurisprudence. Issues like the cap on discrimination damages, the burden of proof, or bringing a pregnancy discrimination case would all be at risk.
However, perhaps the most important reason to vote REMAIN in relation to women's rights, is the extent of what remains to be done in terms of legal protection against gender discrimination. Just two of many examples are parental and carers' rights.
Advancement in parental leave rights
Potential future developments which rely upon EU law and which are highly unlikely post-Brexit include:
a) Providing enhanced shared parental pay in workplaces where enhanced maternity pay exists. Only this will lead to a truly meaningful take up of this shared leave regime.
b) Relaxing or removing current eligibility criteria for shared parental leave (SPL), such as allowing the partners of non-working mother to gain access to SPL.
c) Providing the right to SPL to all workers, including casual, agency and sessional staff would enhance the objectives of the legislation which mirror those of the Parental Leave Directive, including enabling men and women to reconcile their occupational and family obligations;
d) Minimizing or removing current qualifying service periods on access to SPL and unpaid parental leave -which impacts on particular on working mothers with young children, and instead making these a "day one" right;
e) Extending the number of adults who can shared in the SPL regime. It is proposed that from 2018 working grandparents will be able to opt into the SPL regime. But why should a parent have to drop out in order for a grandparent to opt in? Sadly the impact of grandparents' leave would probably be that fathers opt out of childcare, leaving mothers and grandmothers to carry on with the traditional roles which the legislation sought to modernise.
Carer's leave Directive
In November 2015 the European Commission took the first step towards a Carer's leave Directive by launching a consultation relating to a new Directive which would provide a statutory basis for carers to continue to work and still be there for their families. While any worker may have caring responsibilities, the majority are female. 1 in 5 workers between 55 and 65 - most of them women - are caring for dependent relatives, and employment rates for this age group are dramatically low. Statutory Carers' leave would increase the low employment rates and narrow the considerable gender pay gap for older women by allowing them to combine work with caring duties. This development would get nowhere should we vote to leave.
A real risk of regression
These concerns are not mere scare-mongering. Gender discrimination remains hugely prevalent in our workplaces as recent research on pregnancy discrimination reveals. Don't forget we only outlawed discrimination based on part-time status after years of vetoing of the Social Charter in the 1990s.
Existing provisions under UK law are by no means perfect, but they are only in place because of EU law in the first place. EU law has closed dangerous loopholes in UK discrimination law which could open again. Necessary future developments could face a brick wall without the EU jurisprudence. Working women will undoubtedly be the losers in a post-Brexit world.
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