Published on January 29th, 2016 | by frances2
What has Europe ever done for the workers?
By Marion Scovell, Prospect Head of Legal
With the debate leading up to the EU referendum heating up, I am looking at the role European law plays in protecting workers’ rights in the UK.
Much of UK employment law comes from EU legislation, with minimum rights set by directives covering all member states. These cover important issues such as working time, equality rights and health & safety. In recent years we have seen a Government onslaught on rights at work in the UK and it has been heartening to know that many fundamental rights enshrined in European law cannot simply be removed.
What role do the unions have?
The unions have, of course, played a large part in securing workers’ rights across Europe. It is the unions, along with politicians supporting workers’ rights, that have influenced the decision making process around the adoption of directives.
Indeed there are a number of EU directives that were created through collective bargaining between the Social Partners in Europe (the European Trade Union Confederation and the employers’ organisations). For example the directives on part time workers and fixed term workers are implementing framework agreements that were reached through negotiation of the social partners.
Further without effective unions workers are unable to enforce these hard won rights.
So, what has Europe given workers and what rights may be at risk?
The table below sets out some of the key protections for workers that derive from European directives.
In addition to the legislation itself significant improvements to rights have derived from judgments in the European court. These cases have led to additional rights for UK workers. For example, to name just three areas, all these judgments had an important impact on Prospect members:
- In 2002 & 2003 in the two key cases of Beckmann and Martin the European Court of Justice confirmed that redundancy rights contained within pension schemes transfer to the new employer.
- In 2006 the court ruled favourably in the Prospect case of Bernadette Cadman v HSE challenging the unjustified use of seniority based pay. There have been numerous follow on tribunal claims that have been successfully resolved and a large number of negotiations have secured increases in pay on the back of this case.
- Two Court of Justice EU cases in 2012 and 2014 opened the door to claims that holiday pay should be calculated to include overtime payments, which has led to a number of negotiations to recalculate entitlements in Prospect areas.
All these cases were brought with the support of trade unions. Without unions individuals would very rarely be able to enforce their rights at this level. The strategic litigation policies of unions in fighting these key issues in the European Courts have very positively developed the impact of the directives.
Possible impact of leaving the EU
It is not the case that all these rights would be abolished overnight, as they are enshrined in UK law and workers’ contracts of employment. However without having to comply with EU law and obligations many of these rights could be removed by the UK Government.
My colleague, Jane Copley, has explained the impact on our legislation of withdrawing from the EU. This is a complex matter and much would depend on the terms of any exit.
What is clear though is that many of our existing rights are under attack by a Government hostile to the rights of working people. Over the last five years we have seen a large number of employment rights under UK law reduced. There has been a concerted attack on rights such as unfair dismissal, which are not covered by European law. However many rights have remained because they are backed by EU law and the Government has not been able to remove minimum rights guaranteed by the Directives. If the UK was no longer part of the EU, any government wanting to reduce workers’ rights further would have more freedom to do so.
To give just one example of this: There is a maximum cap on compensation for unfair dismissal (which is a purely UK provision), but no cap if the dismissal is unlawful under the Equality Act (which is underpinned by the EU Directive). This is because under European law there must be a truly effective remedy to reflect the loss sustained by the worker. The coalition Government slashed the cap on unfair dismissal in 2012 and there would be nothing to stop them doing the same to equality claims if the Equality Act was no longer supported by European law.
Employment rights are, of course, only one issue to consider in the EU debate. However this is an area where European law has a significant and extremely positive impact in the UK.