Workers’ protections at risk as EU Law bill moves through Parliament

The bill now moves to committee stage, where UNISON will submit expert evidence on why a bonfire of workers’ rights is a bad idea

Lady justice

Last week, the government’s Retained EU Law bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons.

The bill, introduced by former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, has set a fast-moving conveyor belt in motion, which will see essential protections for workers automatically vanish in December 2023, unless the government decides to produce new and equivalent UK laws.

UNISON is horrified by the measures included in the Retained EU Law bill. Many core workplace protections – including holiday pay, maternity/paternity leave, protections for part-time workers and equal pay for women and men – come from the European Union.

EU protections

For decades, EU laws have ensured decent working standards in the UK, shielding workers from exploitation and discrimination. Without this shield, workers in the UK will be exposed to an Americanised, hire-and-fire culture that makes work more insecure and dangerous – especially for women.

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea describes the bill as “an attack on all working women”.

Protections for working women have been developed over decades through a mixture of EU legislation, UK legislation and case law. Separating out those decisions will reverse years of progress for women, including:

  equal pay: being able to challenge your employer if a member of the opposite sex gets paid more for doing the same job;

  family friendly policies: being paid for maternity, paternity and parental leave along with any protections against unfair treatment, such as being sacked or being overlooked for promotion, when taking such leave;

  pregnancy protections: protections against discrimination for pregnant women and women on maternity leave, and the right to suitable alternative work on no less favourable terms.

The bill now moves to committee stage, where a select group of MPs will examine it in detail and review evidence from expert organisations. UNISON will be submitting evidence in this process.

Cruel and outmoded

Since the bill was announced, UNISON has heard from hundreds of concerned members, who described what life was like at work before improvements to maternity, paternity and parental leave.

UNISON member Joe Walinets said: “I am old enough to remember the time when many women were routinely sacked for becoming pregnant, until the late 1970s.

“I remember female family members, colleagues and friends continuing to suffer harsh discrimination in the workplace, until 1993 [when the European Commission directive came into force].

“I was lucky enough to be among the first men to benefit from paternity leave, when my first child was born in 2004. Even then, I remember how my employer tried to get me back after 8 days instead of the statutory 10. The law was my greatest ally in telling them where to go with that, coupled with my union membership.”

Member, Pauline McSorley, said: “I had my child in 1996 before parental leave was established. I felt very much alone with the responsibility. My husband would have benefited from time to get used to parenthood.

“My council employer reduced my maternity leave from full pay to half after 12 weeks, therefore I had to return to work when my baby was 10 weeks. We should never return to these very basic standards. On reflection they were cruel and outmoded, even then.”

Another member said: “I was sacked from a part-time job in the early 1970s because I was pregnant. The excuse was that it could be slippery and I could fall!”

“Bonfire of workers’ rights”

Now that Jacob Rees-Mogg has resigned as business secretary, there has been speculation that new prime minister Rishi Sunak will extend the bill’s deadline from December 2023 to December 2026.

This comes in response to reports that critics, including legal experts and the government lawyer who designed the concept of retained EU law, say the timetable of reviewing 2,400 laws in little more than a year is unrealistic.

Last week, the Financial Times reported that the prime minister had been told it would take 400 staff in the business department alone to review 300 pieces of legislation that resulted from directives, decisions and EU rules over the past 50 years and that, given the cost of living crisis, this was impractical.

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “At a time when working people are experiencing huge financial pressures and uncertainties, we need certainty, stability and support – not a bonfire of workers’ rights.

“This government doesn’t have any mandate to strip away paid holidays, health and safety protections or to roll back rights that support working parents.”

UNISON’s head of legal services Shantha David, said: “UK citizens are entitled to expect basic employment rights in the 21st century. Yet the government’s plan to strip away essential protections around equal pay, maternity, paternity and holiday pay, and protections for outsourced workers, will leave working people open to exploitation, and without any access to justice.”

UNISON remains determined to fight back against the threats to workers’ protections in the Retained EU Law Bill.