Unions across Europe want a Brexit deal to work for working people

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

Several of the likely candidates in a future UK Conservative Party leadership contest make no secret of their wish to scrap workers’ rights. [David Fowler/ Shutterstock]

This week’s European Council summit looks certain to give the green light to the EU to open negotiations on a new relationship with the UK. Frances O’Grady and Luca Visentini explain what trade unions in the EU and the UK want from the future deal.

Frances O’Grady and Luca Visentini are general secretaries of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) and ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation).

Soon the British government will need to spell out what it wants in a future deal, the European Parliament will give its views on Wednesday and the EU plans to adopt detailed ‘negotiating directives’ in February next year.

As trade union leaders in the UK and EU, we want the negotiators to put the impact on people at work at the centre of their task. Brexit must not undermine jobs, rights at work, or living standards. It must not fire the starting pistol on a race to the bottom.

It is vital that we establish a level playing field for workers’ rights so that the UK cannot undercut EU standards. And British workers must have a robust guarantee against falling behind EU workers and becoming second-class citizens.

The new ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ is an important example. President Juncker says it means that “the EU stands up for the rights of its citizens in a fast-changing world.” Trade unions will push the EU to implement it as fully as possible.

That will mean stronger workplace protections, with new rights to paid parental leave, new rights for gig economy workers, and a new deal on workers posted to other countries by their employers.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May promised to “protect, maintain and enhance workers’ rights” in the UK, and she signed the European Pillar of Social Rights. But with her position looking precarious, her personal commitment is not enough – and we don’t know whether she will agree to the European Pillar of Social Rights applying to British workers after the UK leaves the EU.

Several of the likely candidates in a future UK Conservative Party leadership contest make no secret of their wish to scrap workers’ rights. Some of them even appear to want a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which ministers say could mean the UK abandoning the European social model.

This would be a disaster for workers in the UK. And it would pose a threat to workers throughout the EU too. A low wage, low tax, low regulation economy next to the EU would undermine the European social model. And it would risk starting a race to the bottom.

Both the UK and EU27 economies would suffer from any costs or friction for trade in goods and services. And workers would suffer too, from the impact on jobs and investment, and the disruption to supply chains.

That is why we believe that all options must be kept on the negotiating table for the next phase – including UK membership of the single market and customs union.

The EU’s guidelines for the Brexit negotiations already commit to the principle of a ‘level playing field’ between the UK and EU on social matters. The Council must reaffirm this principle, and explain in more detail how it will be achieved.

The UK government should start the next phase of negotiations by agreeing to maintain a level playing field on workers’ rights after Brexit. Regardless of whether Theresa May continues as prime minister.