Why British workers should not be convinced by Cameron

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

Millions of British workers have reason to be grateful for EU employment measures, which Prime Minister David Cameron will try to discredit tomorrow in his landmark speech, writes Baron John Monks, stressing social advances achieved so far are a cause worth fighting for the British working people.

John Monks, former general secretary of the Trades Union Congress and the European Trade Union Confederation, is a member of the British House of Lords.

"A principal target for the prime minister in his speech on Friday will be to wrench the UK away from the social and employment policies of the EU.  Millions of people in Britain will suffer if he is successful.  He must not be.

The Conservative Party has never liked the EU social dimension. New Labour signed up to the Social Chapter, but they were subsequently lukewarm about it. But they did enact new EU based laws on agency workers and consultation rights. 

Europe’s trade unions believe that if the single market is to enjoy popular support, it must have good employment standards. An ambition to achieve these has been around since the start of the European Union and was accelerated under the presidency of Jacques Delors. Under him, Europe’s leaders agreed that the single market should not allow competition on the basis of one country using poor health and safety standards to gain an advantage.  Margaret Thatcher signed up to that principle. As a result EU legislation on health and safety has spread high standards throughout the Europe. In this field, the UK has been the country to follow, and our regulations form the basis of the EU directives.

It is this legislation which underpins the controversial working time directive, a particular bête noire of Cameron. This provides for a normal upper limit of 48 hours on weekly working time, regular rest breaks and four weeks’ paid holiday. Sadly, in my view, the UK already has an opt-out from the 48 hours rule, so the key provision, which does apply here is the 4 weeks’ paid holiday entitlement. Is Cameron proposing an end to that? It was a big step forward for millions of British workers. 

Following the Maastricht Treaty, “social” Europe expanded despite another UK opt-out, this time from the Treaty’s Social Chapter. EU leaders (minus the UK) agreed that the single market should aim to minimise competition based on the cheapness and vulnerability of employees. They accepted the trade union argument that decent labour standards must apply to avoid a downward spiral of pay and conditions.

So far, millions of British workers have reason to be grateful for EU employment measures. Part-time workers get equal treatment and pay. So do temps and agency workers. Employees whose firm changes hands keep the same conditions with the new employer. Equality for women and minorities is a central condition. A voice at work is provided in very large companies by over 800 European Works Councils, for example in BAe, Rolls Royce and Unilever; and in smaller work places, by new rules on information and consultation about change. Migrant workers get equal treatment, which also helps protect the pay and conditions of British workers from being undermined.

If the prime minister renegotiates us out of Social Europe, all these gains are at risk. You have only to look at what the Government is doing now to rights which derive from the UK. Their current agenda includes new restrictions on access to tribunals by requiring cash deposits and raising qualifying conditions; cuts in legal aid and available compensation; shorter periods of notice of redundancies; and encouragement to sell rights for potentially worthless shares. Already 3 million workers have been taken out of unfair dismissal protection. 

The EU’s employment laws are bulwarks against more raids by the government. That is why the Conservatives hate them so venomously. These laws are not making the UK less competitive. In fact, by raising standards, they’re a spur to higher productivity, investment and skills. Without them, our future could be a race to the bottom in the single market. 

Cameron’s Dutch manoeuvre is unworthy and mean-spirited. EU employment rights, like the EU itself, even with all its flaws, deserve the determined support of British working people. They’re a cause worth fighting for. His vision of a UK without significant protections for employees, and instead of competing on quality, competing on cheapness and vulnerability, would be a disaster.

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