How might Brexit affect working women? – EUmatters

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Published on March 30th, 2016 | by frances

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How might Brexit affect working women?

By Abigail Rumsey, CABI Branch and Prospect’s Young Professionals’ Network committee

So far in the discussion on the EU referendum, we have heard about what being a part of the EU means for workers’ rights, but how has it contributed specifically to working women’s rights? A lot of UK employment laws have been heavily influenced by directives passed at EU level, which are arguably a lot stronger than those that could have been created solely by a British government outside of the confines of the EU.

The Treaty of Rome that established the European Economic Community in 1957 (the precursor to the EU) stated that, “Each Member State shall ensure that the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value is applied.” It took the Ford Motor Company workers’ tireless campaigning to trigger the Equal Pay Act of 1970 for UK workers however. Even then, it wasn’t until 1984 that the UK government was forced to include equal pay for work of equal value in this Act, after it was taken to court by the European Commission.

We now have many laws in the UK that protect the rights of women at work during pregnancy and maternity, and many of these result from EU law. Perhaps we take it for granted these days that women in Europe are allowed paid maternity leave, but you only have to compare our laws to the USA, where there is no mandated paid leave, to see that working life for a new mother could be very different.

EU countries have to ensure that:

  • During pregnancy and for a time following childbirth, women are not obliged to perform night work
  • Women are allowed paid time off to attend antenatal appointments
  • Women can take at least 14 weeks’ maternity leave
  • Women may not be dismissed for reasons related to their condition from the beginning of their pregnancy to the end of their maternity leave
  • Women have the right to return to the same job after maternity leave

These laws help to ensure that women who choose to have children are not discriminated against at work, or hindered in their careers.

There is also a directive in place that allows at least four months’ parental leave, which supports mothers by allowing them and their partners to care for their children while remaining employed. Parents cannot be discriminated against for taking parental leave, and are also entitled to request changes to their working hours for a set period.

Before the passing of the EU directives mentioned above, the UK national legislation on employment rights was relatively underdeveloped. The EU law to give part time workers equal pay and benefits – such as pensions pro rata – has benefited women as they make up the majority of the part time workforce. In 2000, a judgement made by the European Court of Justice led to the House of Lords ruling that employers had to give part time workers backdated pensions. This is the kind of ruling on employment rights in the UK that has been much influenced and boosted by the existing EU laws.
Should Britain choose to leave the EU, there is a risk that the UK government could change regulations on working time and equality, negatively affecting women. Since the previous coalition government, there has been a push to remove the “red tape” of demanding EU regulations so that it is easier to run a business, as the TUC also points out in its briefing on the risks to women of the UK’s withdrawal. These are the regulations that protect women from discrimination and unequal opportunities at work. While it is unlikely that any UK government would want to be seen removing existing equality rights, not being in the EU would mean the UK would not be obliged to conform to any new EU laws improving workers’ rights in the future. The government would also be able to reduce the severity of penalties imposed on businesses that have been accused of discrimination. The EU Parliament makes strong laws that were not created to be bureaucracy for businesses. They provide protection for all working people – including women.


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2 Responses to How might Brexit affect working women?

  1. Andrew says:

    I appriciate your comparison with the maternity pay situation in the USA but would it not also be useful to compare with other non EU countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand? They all have strong cultural links to the UK (all with sizeable Uk born populations still ) and also have strong Labour/Liberal influences in thier parliamentry history. Would a non EU United Kingdom not look more like them?
    I guess my biggest concern for working class women (low paid) in the UK is impact on their wages which are being supressed by a supply of cheap labour from Eastern Europe. The Union movement never seems to comment on this.

  2. Calvin Allen says:

    I think the answer, Andrew, lies either in collective bargaining or better regulation: delivering proper living wage laws and ensuring that employers abide by them substantively lessens the opportunities for domestic labour to be under-cut and for migrant labour to be exploited (two sides of the same coin, for me). Perhaps the union movement should say more about that – but it is absolutely integral to the work that we do so it appears less obvious that we do need to say more!

    Historically, yes: Australia, Canada and NZ might well be decent comparators – but haven’t better comparators, and for at least the past 40 years, been people from EU countries with which we have been actively striving to achieve common standards? The point of the US comparison – and I think it is a very valid one – is that most of those who seek UK withdrawal from the EU are also those looking heavily at labour market deregulation – and there it is how the US does (or does not) regulate its labour market which is their source of inspiration.

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