The European Union has played a substantial role in shaping rights at work in the UK over the last thirty years. For Eurosceptics, this is a prime example of the EU over-stepping the mark and undermining national sovereignty. With our future within the European Union looking more uncertain than ever, it is an important time to re-examine the influence it has over employment regulation in the UK. Research released today by the IPA aims to shed light on this question.
Originating in Brussels
Many of the rights that working people take for granted originated not in the UK, but in Brussels. Take the Working Time Directive for example, which for the first time guaranteed employees a minimum amount of paid holiday. Before this, there was no legal requirement for employers to offer paid leave and one in four British employees had just fifteen days a year or fewer. Or take the TUPE regulations, introduced in response to EU Directives, which have protected many workers in the UK. EU Directives have strengthened rights for working parents, extended protection against discrimination and offered employees a greater voice at work. It was the EU that guaranteed equal rights for a-typical workers – the part-time, temporary and agency employees who are in fact increasingly typical in our modern labour market.
The EU has given working people real, tangible rights. It has made the workplace a fairer place. Millions of British employees have reason to be grateful for the difference it has made.
The impact of regulation
But how does this employment regulation impact on our economy? Few issues incite the fury of Eurosceptics more than Brussels’ influence over British employment regulation. Those who would repatriate powers from the EU – or withdraw altogether – tend to argue that British businesses are over-burdened by red-tape from Brussels. Excessive and inappropriate regulations are enforced on us, so the argument goes, without our say or consent. With his characteristic rhetorical flourish, Boris Johnson recently decried the ‘back-breaking’ weight of EU employment regulation that is ‘helping to fur the arteries to the point of sclerosis.’
This aversion to EU employment regulation does seem to be shared by some employers. In a poll of their members, the CBI found that one in two said that EU attempts to create similar employment rights across the UK had impacted negatively on their business. The same number said that the UK leaving the EU would have a positive impact on their business in terms of the overall regulatory burden.
We are not over-regulated
However, the argument that Britain is over-regulated just does not bear scrutiny. According both to the OECD and the World Economic Forum, the UK labour market remains one of the least regulated in the developed world. Decent employment rights are by no means incompatible with economic success – the dynamic and successful economies of Germany and Scandinavia are far more heavily regulated than ours. And although some employers voice concern about some regulations, the vast majority see it as a price worth paying for access to the single market. The same CBI poll that highlighted employer concerns over EU regulation also found that the vast majority (71%) saw the EU as having a positive impact on their business.
There is a strong case for the EU retaining a role in influencing employment regulation in member states. The single market requires some common rules to ensure it operates efficiently. Coordination at the EU level is necessary in order to prevent competitive deregulation between member states and a race to the bottom which would harm working people. And the concept of a ‘Social Europe’ has played an important role in building and maintaining consent for the EU. As a poll conducted by the Fabian Society found, the majority of people support the role of the EU in establishing minimum levels of workplace rights.
Now more than ever, we need both to challenge some of the myths around ‘EU red tape’ and recognise the significant benefits that the EU has brought both to British businesses and to working people.