Blog: The EU law bill – a Halloween nightmare from Downing Street

A bonfire of employment rights might thrill right-wing ideologues, but it would be a nightmare for workers – and particularly working women

Portrait of Christina McAnea

It might not be Halloween yet, but yesterday in the House of Commons, MPs debated the Retained EU Law bill, which aims to deregulate workplaces and strip away protections that all UK workers rely on.

A bonfire of employment rights might be the long-cherished dream of right-wing ideologues like Jacob Rees-Mogg, but it’s a nightmare for workers – particularly women. One member told UNISON that these plans were “callous, cruel and despicable”. I agree.

If the bill becomes law, it will start a countdown that will see rights such as rest breaks, holidays, maternity, paternity and parental leave, paid time off for health and safety reps, TUPE protections and more expire by December 2023.

The government will then give itself sweeping powers to rewrite, replace or simply let these rights disappear. There will be little opportunity for parliamentary debate or scrutiny over what these replacements are – if there is any time at all.

Civil servants have expressed concern that there is little capacity to deal with the uncertainty and massive gaps this bill will leave.

Not content with ripping out protections, with no guarantees or credible plans to replace them, the bill would also create chaos in the legal system. It asks UK courts to depart from EU law and principles, which means that decades of legal judgements and case law will have to be re-litigated and reargued, at an immense financial cost to all the workers and employers bringing and defending claims.

The UK’s court system is already under strain with long delays. If this bill becomes law, costs and delays will increase, meaning that only those with deep pockets can re-litigate settled principles. A sense of certainty in the law will be lost.

An attack on working women

This is a double whammy for women’s rights at work. 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.

For example, the ability to make equal pay claims for work of equal value done by different sexes, along with the clarity that the case law has brought to this area over many years, will dissolve entirely.

The removal of part-time and fixed-term contract protections, maternity and pregnancy protections, and the removal of family friendly policies that seek to ensure that childcare is not a ‘women’s issue’ alone, is an attack on all working women.

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

One member commented: “I was working in the 1970s when the men in the office were paid more than the women for doing the same job. Never again!”

Every response had the same message they want me to tell MPs: leave the rights of workers alone unless you are improving them.

The country has seen the chaos that the government have brought to our economy – now they want to tear up certainty in the workplace and in our courts. This cannot be allowed to happen. In the inspiring words of a UNISON member, if the government persists, they must be stopped.

“Remember fighting for the rights of women to vote and Emily Pankhurst? We will all be Emilys!”

If you are concerned about the Retained EU Law Bill, you can have your say here.