“…among the worst idlers in the world…”
That was how five leading Tory MPs described British workers in their book ‘Britannia Unchained’. Far from being dismissed as hard-liners, all were appointed to government by Theresa May, three of them promoted to cabinet and one to lead the Brexit department.
For now, May herself clings to office. But under whatever leader, the Tories simply cannot be trusted to defend the interests of working people. Their instinct remains to give a free reign to those who profit from the insecure work of others. As the current International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, has openly argued: “To restore Britain’s competitiveness we must begin by deregulating the labour market. Political objections must be overridden.”
The Prime Minister’s lip service to righting the ‘burning injustices’ now seems like a bad joke. From rising homelessness to families relying on food banks and public services collapsing under their cuts, it’s no surprise that the United Nations’ envoy recently described her policies as ‘a social calamity and an economic disaster.’
This right-wing dogma has similarly infected the Government’s Brexit deal. The Environment Secretary Michael Gove admitted as much last week, cheerleading for the Withdrawal Agreement on the grounds that “…it allows us to diverge in a number of areas. One of the reasons why some people on the Labour benches don’t like it is because they recognise there is flexibility for Britain in a huge swathe of its economy as a result of this deal and they don’t want to see that flexibility.”
Gove was right on both counts. No one in the labour movement wants what he has in mind: flexibility for the benefit of the worst employers at the expense of everyone else. And as he admitted, Mrs May’s deal would open the door to precisely that.
We believe workers’ rights must be strengthened, not weakened. It should be a matter of pride that we do not just match but exceed the labour standards of our European neighbours.
Instead the deal on offer takes us further backwards, and there is no sign of that changing. On the contrary, the Prime Minister has made clear that the only concerns she recognises are those about circumstances in which the Northern Ireland Protocol (the ‘backstop’) might start and end, not how it deals with issues like rights at work.
The ever shrinking number defending May’s deal argue that it includes ‘non-regression’ clauses for employment and environmental protection – notionally, commitments not to reduce standards.
However, ‘non-regression’ clauses are far from watertight. And those in this deal are especially weak because their stated purpose is to ensure “the proper functioning of the single customs territory” rather than to protect workers’ rights as an end in itself.
Those looking for safeguards in the ‘Political Declaration’, which sets out our aspirations for the long term relationship with Europe, will find little in its 26 pages. The declaration is not legally binding and is unacceptably vague given its importance.
Given that both documents explicitly allow for significant future divergence between the UK and EU, there is nothing whatsoever to stop a Tory government from slashing workers’ rights in the years ahead.
There is also the question of how those rights are enforced. The Attorney General gave the game away when he told the Commons last week, the “non-regression clauses are not enforceable either by the EU institutions or by the arbitration arrangements under the withdrawal agreement.”
To make things worse, the clauses in the agreement would limit the ability of individuals and trade unions in the UK to take legal action too. So we would be left to trust a Tory Government not just to maintain labour standards but enforce them as well.
The government could have included a stronger, binding legal duty that trade unions and workers could enforce in the courts, but clearly decided not to.
So it is clear that these assurances are not worth the paper they are written on. This Government has failed to enact its own very limited promises on employment protections, never mind a series of laws which it doesn’t really believe in. They do not want to make it easier for trade unions to access workplaces, organise and ensure rights are and ensure there is justice at work.
Both the Labour Party and the trade unions have been clear from the start that any deal had to ensure that the protections we currently enjoy are maintained and enforced, and categorically prevent a race to the bottom. When it comes to workers’ rights, this agreement does neither. For working people in Britain, the deal doesn’t take back control: it allows the Tories to take it away. That is why the entire labour movement is united against it, and nothing in the last week has changed that fundamental fact.
Tim Roache is General Secretary of the GMB trade union
Matthew Pennycook is Labour’s shadow Brexit minister with responsibility for employment rights and MP for Greenwich and Woolwich