Workers must not pay the price of Brexit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV). Brussels, April 2014. [Sebastiaan ter Burg/Flickr]

Trade unions will fight tooth and nail against any erosion of social rights currently guaranteed by the EU, in the wake of Brexit, in the UK or elsewhere, writes Luca Visentini.

Luca Visentini is General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

Protecting workers in the aftermath of the UK referendum and the Brexit negotiations – whenever they may take place – is now a top priority for trade unions. On both sides of the English Channel, we are united in fighting to ensure workers are not the victims of British withdrawal from the EU.

Among the many unanswered questions in the ongoing Brexit ‘phoney war’, for example, the future status of British workers in the EU, and European workers in the UK, impacts on many people’s lives.

Individuals seeking to build a career or a family, students hoping to study abroad, young workers looking for wider experience … thousands of people now find themselves facing an uncertain future.

Will they have to pay to cross borders? Will they require visas and work permits? Will they have to abandon the jobs and communities they call home?

It was no coincidence, therefore, that the ETUC was invited to address British trade unionists at the TUC’s annual congress in Brighton this week. My message was clear: European and British trade unions will stand together to defend workers’ rights and social protection throughout, and after, the Brexit process. Never has the need for cross-border solidarity been stronger.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has already declared that workers must not bear the cost of Brexit, and British workers’ rights must not be sacrificed in a bid to entice investment into the UK. In her conference speech, she pledged to secure the best possible deal for working people.

The referendum result brings a whole new era of uncertainty for workers and their families across Europe, and the current ill-defined period of limbo is immoral and inhuman. We back the TUC in its call to the UK government: “no ifs, no buts. Guarantee workers’ rights, now and in the future”. Trade unions will fight tooth and nail against any erosion of the social rights currently guaranteed by the EU, in the wake of Brexit, in the UK or elsewhere.

The ETUC warmly welcomes the TUC’s support for the right of continental European workers to remain in the UK, and to enjoy decent working conditions, equal pay and job security. In the same way, we will defend the interests of British citizens living and working in EU countries.

This week, the Guardian dedicated one of its editorial columns to urging the new Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to re-engage with the trade unions, and to pick up Frances O’Grady’s challenge to place trade union representatives at the Brexit negotiating table alongside national and regional authorities and business. We have already received reassurances from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that European trade unions will be consulted, on the EU side, during negotiations. We call on the British government to guarantee the same rights to the TUC.

We have also promised the TUC that, whatever happens, British trade unions will remain valued members of the European confederation.

In his State of the Union speech in Strasbourg this week, President Juncker referred to an “existential crisis” in Europe. And yet he put forward few if any new and concrete proposals for advancing social rights and the welfare of EU citizens. His commitment to maintaining free movement of workers while guaranteeing the same pay for the same work in the same place, through revision of the Posting of Workers Directive, while welcome, is already well-known. And promises to protect workers from the impact of globalisation are great, but how far do they go in the face of massive factory closures like that of Caterpillar in Belgium?

Doubling the size and duration of the Investment Plan is a key strategy, but still fails to measure up to the massive public investment we believe is necessary to restore growth and create good jobs. Evidence shows that the economies recovering successfully from recession are fuelled by public investment, together with social equality and dialogue. Good public services and social protection systems do not undermine growth, they sustain it. And Europe will never be able to compete globally by imposing job insecurity and cutting wages. Trade unions in the UK and across Europe are together demanding higher pay for workers everywhere, rooted in strong collective bargaining systems at all levels.

The ETUC and TUC are also united in opposing the current CETA and TTIP trade deals, which would protect powerful multinationals at the cost of workers’ rights and EU standards.

The European Commission is now preparing a new ‘pillar of social rights’, and we will fight to obtain concrete benefits for workers. This is the only way to restore public trust in the EU. These rights must cover workers across Europe – not just the eurozone countries – including the UK, regardless of Brexit. As one TUC delegate told this week’s Congress: “We are all Europeans, and that will never change.”

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