British workers’ rights to paid holiday, maternity leave and fair treatment at work would be at risk if the UK voted to leave the European Union, the head of the Trades Union Congress has warned.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the body representing British trade unions, said the EU debate had been too dominated by business interests, with not enough focus on the potential costs for ordinary workers. “Most of the rights that we depend on derive from Europe,” she said.
“If you are going to have a baby, knowing whether or not, or how much paid maternity leave you are going to get might make you think quite hard about how you are going to vote. If you are one of those 6 million workers whose holidays were improved by the working time directive you might not want to put your cross in the wrong box.”
The EU’s working time directive enshrines the right to 20 days’ paid holiday and made millions of British people better off when it was introduced in 1993.
O’Grady also cited the transfer of undertakings (TUPE) rules that protect staff terms and conditions when jobs are transferred or outsourced, as well as EU laws that oblige firms to inform and consult workers when they plan redundancies.
All these rights would be hostage to a future Conservative government if Britain left the EU, she said. “Do you trust a Conservative government to keep those rights? It is one hell of a gamble.”
The TUC is also concerned Brexit would cost jobs and investment. “It may well be that jobs would replace the ones we lost, but would they be of the same quality? Because manufacturing in particular would take a big hit.”
O’Grady was speaking to the Guardian in Brussels on the eve of a crucial summit that will determine Britain’s future in the EU. She was meeting European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and pledged to tell him to “turn up the volume” about what a Brexit would mean for working people.
“Of course if wouldn’t be right for them to interfere, but it is quite appropriate for president Juncker to talk about what Europe has delivered for working people and what more it could be delivering.”
In his state-of the-union speech last year, Juncker called for a fairer European labour market, with an end to “social dumping”, the practice of importing low-wage workers to dilute pay and conditions. But European trade unions think he hasn’t done enough to turn this agenda into a reality.
O’Grady said Juncker couldn’t afford to rely on Cameron being able to deliver a yes vote in a referendum. “I think there needs to be a recognition across the political class that every worker’s vote counts and ... that is who they have got to convince.”
Referring to the controversy over restricting in-work benefits for EU citizens, she said: “Instead of a debate dominated by the benefits for 84,000 migrant workers, maybe we need a debate dominated by the idea of what action the EU can take to reintroduce the rate for the job across industries and end undercutting.”
The TUC is particularly concerned about what Cameron’s “better regulation” agenda could mean. Boosting competitiveness and cutting red tape is one of the UK’s four areas of reform, although the generalities of the draft agreement mean it has remained relatively uncontroversial in negotiations. O’Grady said the TUC was on constant red alert on this question: “One business leader’s red tape is a worker’s paid holiday.”
The TUC will not be affiliated to the Remain campaign headed by former Marks & Spencer boss Stuart Rose, as O’Grady wants to preserve its own voice. Keeping her distance may help her to convince leftwing eurosceptics that the EU is not merely a capitalists’ club.
Partly to that end, O’Grady was also meeting Europe’s trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, to discuss controversial EU trade deals, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The TUC wants to scrap special courts – private bodies that would be empowered to arbitrate on trade disputes. Critics argue this investor state-dispute settlement would restrict the rights of governments to regulate in the public interest. She would also like to write International Labour Organisation standards into EU trade deals.
Citing former commission president Jacques Delors, who once said, “you can’t fall in love with the single market”, O’Grady said current EU leaders needed to re-focus on selling Europe to ordinary citizens. “If you want to win popular support there has to be something on the table for workers as well.”
This article was written by Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 17th February 2016 16.37 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010