For the past two years trade unions have been clear that any Brexit deal would have to safeguard rights at work, otherwise we couldn’t support it. Theresa May brushed off our concerns, insisting that her deal would “protect and enhance” rights at work. Well as of last week, we know for sure that it doesn’t.
And we’re not talking about abstract regulations here, the kind no one really understands. We’re talking about everyday protections that really matter to working people. Like paid holidays, rights for part-time workers, time off for working mums and dads, equal pay for women and limits on working hours.
These rights were won by trade unionists through the EU, and we’ve been clear that leaving the EU must not put them at risk. And building on that, working people need a long-term, binding guarantee that rights in the UK will keep pace with those across Europe.
But the government’s deal doesn’t come close to meeting this test.
In both the proposals for the transition period and for our future relationship with the EU – and whether we end up with the backstop or a free trade agreement – our rights are under real threat.
First, while the Tory right is up in arms about a transition where they say everything will stay the same, the reality is that on employment rights UK workers will lose out. Under the government’s plans, new EU rights that come into force after the transition won’t apply to UK workers.
Second, after the transition, the rights of British workers look set to fall far behind those of workers across Europe. And it’s not clear how any agreement on rights between the EU and UK will be enforced.
Third, and worst of all, the only employment rights commitments that cover our future relationship with the EU are in the draft Political Declaration. Unfortunately, this section of the agreement is non-binding: it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.
A future government of Tory Brexiteers could easily ignore its intention and try to negotiate a free trade agreement that undermines our hard-won workplace protections.
We know that there’s appetite in the Conservative Party for a bonfire of workers’ rights. Plenty of Tory MPs and cabinet ministers are on-the-record opponents of, for example, the Working Time Directive, which stops bad bosses from forcing their staff to work dangerously long hours.
Already, we’ve seen that Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and other Brexiteers in cabinet are pressuring the prime minister to renegotiate the bits of the deal they don’t like. And Jacob Rees-Mogg and his friends in the ERG are piling on the pressure as well.
If someone like Rees-Mogg, or even Sajid Javid, were to get the keys to Number 10 – and they might – there would be nothing to stop them ripping the Political Declaration up. And working people would pay the price.
The government knows this deal is bad for jobs, as its own impact assessments show. But we now know it would also be a disaster for rights at work.
In short, the government has failed to achieve a deal that delivers for working people. Trade unions can’t support it, and we don’t think MPs should either.
And we won’t stand for the country being held to ransom. “My deal or no deal” is not a real choice. The prime minister must not bully MPs into backing a deal they know will hit their constituents’ jobs, rights and livelihoods.
Ultimately, the millionaires on the Tory benches aren’t the ones who’ll pay the price if we get Brexit wrong. It’s working families’ futures that are at stake. And the government is failing them.
So the country needs to come together to find a real alternative. One way or another, the people must have the final say on the deal. And that means we need a general election or a popular vote now.
Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the TUC