Business secretary denies plans to rip-up workers’ rights


Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has denied reports that the government wants to row back on workers’ rights now that the UK has left the EU.

Yesterday, the Financial Times reported that some workers’ protections and rules brought in under EU’s Working Time Directive – including the 48-hour limit on the working week, rules on rest breaks, and the inclusion of overtime pay in holiday pay calculations – could be amended by government.

Ministers also want to remove the requirement for businesses to keep records of working hours, a source told the FT.

Kwarteng has refuted the claim, stating that his department wanted to “protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them”.

Labour’s business secretary Ed Milliband tweeted: “These proposals are not about cutting red tape for businesses but ripping up vital rights for workers. People are already deeply worried about their jobs and health. It’s a disgrace the government is considering forcing them to work longer hours or lose paid holidays.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Imagine thinking attacking paid holiday and safe limits on working time is a priority right now.”

Len McCluskey, general secretary of union Unite, said no decent government would “launch an attack” on workers’ rights during a pandemic.

“In our time of need it has been working people who have stepped up and kept this country safe and supported. The vulnerable and low waged have paid the highest price in this pandemic. Respect these workers – do not take away their basic rights,” he said.

The labour market rules that exist in the UK already strike a good balance between providing protection for workers and flexibility for employers, said Rachel Suff, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, however there could be a case for some tweaks to the Working Time Regulations.

“Case law has led to confusing changes on holiday pay calculation or on how working time is recorded, but our research shows that overall employers are supportive of these regulations. Six in ten employers report that the Working Time Regulations are necessary to protect the health and safety of workers, with just 13% disagreeing,” said Suff.

“The big issue the government should be focusing on before looking at deregulation should be improving how existing employment rights are enforced through publishing its long-awaited response to the consultation on the creation of a single enforcement body.”

The UK was required to adhere to EU laws during the Brexit transition period, but since 1 January 2021 it has been able deviate from them should the government wish to – including from EU employment regulations.

In a blog post this morning, employment law expert Darren Newman wrote that the EU-UK trade agreement states  both parties are free to set their own employment laws, but they should not be weakened or reduced in a manner that affects trade or investment.

He concludes: “Changes to employment law can no longer be legally challenged on the basis that they are not consistent with [an EU] Directive. This gives the government quite a lot of scope to make important changes to employment law that will be significant for us here in the UK, but not dramatic enough to trigger a dispute with the EU. What we will see when the Employment Bill is eventually published is how far the government is willing to test the boundaries of the trade deal.”

A government spokesperson said it had “absolutely no intention of lowering the standards of workers’ rights” and reiterated Kwarteng’s claim that the UK has “one of the best workers’ rights record in the world”.

“It is well known that the UK goes further than the EU in many areas,” the spokesperson said. “Leaving the EU allows us to continue to be a standard setter and protect and enhance UK workers’ rights.”

Despite case law ruling that pay relating to overtime and commission should be included in the calculation of holiday pay, research last year suggested that many employers only consider basic pay.

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