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Published on April 15th, 2016 | by frances

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Employment rights: why are workers’ voices not being heard?

By Calvin Allen, Prospect Research Officer

We had a comment on an earlier post from C Woodrow, who pointed out that ‘It appears to me that any thinking member of a trade union would recognise the social justice argument for remaining in Europe…’.

I think that’s true – but I make no apology for going on again on this blog about workers’ rights, in the process trailing further work which the TUC has put together.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the advice commissioned by the TUC from Michael Ford QC on the likely impact of UK withdrawal from the EU on EU-derived employment rights. At 66 pages, this is not a light read and neither is it really intended as a read for the man or woman on the street. But it is – clearly – a comprehensive exposition of the EU rights that are, potentially, jeopardised by withdrawal. Evidently, we don’t know what a future government might, or might not, do here – as the author himself states (para. 28): ‘Which [rights and standards] would in fact be revoked is less a legal question than a political and sociological prediction.’ However, as he also emphasises (same para), all of them are vulnerable to a UK which was no longer a member of the organisation whose institutions had drawn them up. It is not ‘Project Fear’ to state (and re-state, right the way through to the date of the referendum, if necessary) such vulnerability. Most ordinary readers may want to focus on Owen Tudor’s ‘10 reasons why we should be worried’ post on Touchstone which confirms not just the vulnerability of these rights but the presence of a number of powerful concerns who are indeed very interested in taking them away and who would no doubt seek to do exactly that were they to be freed from the restraining shackles that the EU is (for all the criticisms of its liberalisation agenda) currently able to place on the UK’s rampant free marketeers. By the way: whose is the biggest voice within the EU on liberalisation? Well, it’s ours.

Secondly, there is the evidence from opinion polling commissioned for the Fabian Society that highlights that workers’ voices are not being heard sufficiently in the referendum debate. The polling was in collaboration with and part-funded by the TUC, so it is entirely legitimate to a point to another of Owen’s posts on Touchstone highlighting the results. The TUC is entirely exempt from any criticisms here since it has, in conjunction with European colleagues, striven throughout this whole process to keep employment rights off the negotiating table – and with significant successes, too. That workers’ voices are not featuring in a debate which was largely created initially, and is now being furthered, by people who have little interest in promoting workers’ rights is no great surprise.

Of course, workers’ voices need to be heard – and from whatever perspective. Any debate which functions without workers’ voices (or which seeks to exclude them) undermines the democracy within which that debate purports to be held. Equally as importantly, if we are to protect ourselves against that vulnerability becoming a reality, workers’ voices need to be heard. Where this is not the case, this creates a vacuum in which misinformation and misleading may profit (‘You don’t need the EU for workers’ rights: ILO standards will prevail’), which can only to the benefit of many of those promoting UK withdrawal. Furthermore, it also means that the more the choices we face in this referendum are boiled down to one or two issues of the day rather than the nuanced debate we’d certainly like to have in Prospect about the future and how the UK might find its place and its role in the modern world. And about what role would be played by workers’ rights and organisations in it.

We’re all the poorer for that.


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