What will Brexit mean for Workers’ Rights in the UK?

Health and safety at work

On the 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) - but what does this mean for workers’ rights in the UK?

One of the benefits which the Leave campaign saw was centred around reducing the “red tape” which businesses, particularly small businesses (SMEs), face as a result of regulations introduced from the EU.

Leaving the EU, it was argued, would free SMEs from restrictions imposed by this regulatory framework, helping businesses to become more competitive in the marketplace by introducing more flexible working practices.

There is a reverse of this argument however, with important implications for UK employees.

The development of Health & Safety Law

Some of the “red tape” brought in by Europe for businesses amounts to legislation brought in to protect the rights and working conditions for ordinary working people.

There is no doubt that the UK is a much safer place for working men and women today than it was in 1975 when we joined what was then called the Common Market. The year before, the landmark Health & Safety at Work Act had entered the statute books.

Fatal accidents at work

The effect has been marked. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) records show a dramatic fall in recorded fatalities at work:

  • 1974 - 651 fatalities at work
  • 2016 - 143 fatalities at work

Health and Safety protections in UK

The safety protections in the UK legalisation have been consequently strengthened by Statutory Regulations brought in directly via EU law:

  • Management of Health & Safety at Work
  • Workplace Health Safety & Welfare Regulations
  • Manual Handling Operation Regulations
  • Provision of Use of Work Equipment Regulations

These regulations have transformed the workplace; imposing and enforcing a Health & Safety focused culture in the UK which workers, especially in industry, have benefitted from.

HSE records show that the number of workplace accidents has decreased in recent years.

Workers rights in the UK

Likewise, in more general employment law, regulations have been introduced by the EU which have strengthened workers’ rights.

  • Working Time Directive: limits average hours a week, enforces paid annual leave, rest breaks and days off for workers, night workers and young people.
  • Maternity rights: refer to maternity leave, time off, duties at work and employment rights.
  • Parental leave: minimum requirements for parental leave for both male and female workers and employment protection.
  • Equal treatment of part-time, fixed term and agency workers: covers equal pay, working conditions, employment rights and pensions.

All these regulations have become part of the fabric of an employee’s everyday working life and should not be taken for granted.

Post 2010: A Change of Emphasis?

In recent years, even before Brexit, the last parliament saw a number of measures introduced by the then coalition government which impacted on the workplace.

Depending on your point of view, these have either helped businesses in their fight against “red tape” and bureaucracy, or have adversely affected the rights of their employees.

2013 regulation makes work accident claims more difficult

In 2013, The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act brought in measures to reduce strict liability on employers when their failure to uphold Health & Safety regulations resulted in their employees being injured at work.

This made it much more difficult for claimants to successfully pursue personal injury claims against their employers.

The ability to bring civil claims, and the consequent demands upon employers from insurance companies, have been a major driver in improving workplace health and safety practices and reducing the amount of accidents and injuries at work.

Worker’s rights and Health & Safety regulations up for debate

Earlier this month, the government announced plans to introduce a Great Repeal Bill into parliament in early 2017.

What’s the Great Repeal Bill?

The Great Repeal Bill will instantly annul the 1972 European Communities Act (ECA), which gives EU law effect in the UK, and will give Parliament the power to keep parts of EU law and scrap elements it does not want to keep.

In the short term all EU laws will become UK law but may not remain so. Already, UK Government Ministers have raised the possibility of a ‘sunset clause’ phasing out EU from the UK unless Parliament chooses to renew it.  

Employment conditions and worker’s rights are up for debate, reform and even removal, potentially putting people at risk and reversing the progress that has been made because of Health & Safety Regulations brought in by the EU.

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Innes Laing

Innes Laing, Partner, Digby Brown Solicitors Kirkcaldy Office