48 Hours Is Already Too Much

Yesterday's debate on the EU Working Time Directive confirmed the Tories' hostility to even the most basic of workers' rights – but it also proved that the Left needs to demand something better than the status quo.

Yesterday, the Labour Party forced an Opposition Day vote in the House of Commons on the post-Brexit future of workers’ rights. The debate culminated in a motion to retain the basic EU-derived Working Time Regulations and do away with ‘fire and rehire’ tactics.

The EU’s Working Time Directive gives a cluster of rights to working people, including limits on weekly working hours, breaks between shifts, and mandatory rest breaks. Since 1998, it has provided European citizens with a safety net of health and safety minimums below which employers theoretically cannot delve.

Although the protections extend to employees and precarious workers alike, they do not, by any means, represent a full toolkit of workers’ rights. Employees can ‘opt-out’ of the 48-hour maximum working week, and are most likely to do so when facing pressure from employers: the opt-out has been used most frequently in—you guessed it—the UK.

The defensive position Labour took yesterday on these limited measures was a far cry from the warehouse of proposals in the party’s 2019 manifesto, and many will feel it was inadequate in an environment that demands something far more radical – particularly as the campaign for a four-day week gains traction. Nonetheless, the Directive does set a bare minimum worth retaining.

The Tories’ Alternative

The Directive is enshrined in our national law through the Working Time Regulations. This means that the exit from the EU does not in itself enable the government to simultaneously escape the Directive and the obligations it lays on employers: unless Parliament amends the legislation, employers must continue to follow the guidance.

Among workers’ rights campaigners, the long-awaited Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement was far from worth the wait. The Agreement frames the government’s future obligations to workers’ rights through a business lens, and only prevents the weakening of labour laws ‘in a manner affecting trade or investment’ with the EU.

On top of that, on the back of a laborious few years of negotiations, it seems woefully unlikely that the EU will seek to enforce any breaches. This element of the deal is a ‘rhetorical flourish’, a mere toothless nod in the direction of workers’ rights. The handful of short sentences in the 1,246-page Agreement effectively gives free reign to our overwhelmingly blue parliament, and opens the door to the cutting of the ‘red tape’ that is basic workers’ rights.

Creeping Change

Last week, a Tory review of employment rights came to light – a mindboggling initiative at a time when the lives of working people have been thrown into such turmoil. Boris Johnson himself has a history of opposition to what he labels the ‘back-breaking’ requirements of EU-derived workers’ rights, and last week spoke to 250 prominent business figures rallying support for regulatory liberalisation. Coupled with the business-orientated framing of labour laws curated by the government in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, this is worrying.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng confirmed that this post-Brexit ‘review’ of employment rights is underway and told the business select committee they would ‘look at a whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we want to keep.’ He did nonetheless insist that this would not lead to a whittling away of labour market standards: whether or not you believe him is up to you.

Big business and employers have long fought against the stream of EU case law flowing from the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of the rules laid down by the Directive. The Court has confirmed that overtime must be included in holiday pay calculations, and that employers are bound to make detailed daily records of actual working hours. In simple terms, one side of the ring is furious about the terrible shackles of regulatory and reporting obligations imposed on employers; the other expects the most basic of labour rights – fair holiday pay, the right to take a 20-minute break during a long shift, health and safety minimums for night workers.

Workers’ rights have been pushed into the shadows over the past year, with myopic concessions like the furlough scheme papering over the cracks in the façade of a leadership that does not care about workers: these measures are nothing more than the feeble kneejerk reaction to an emergency. The Working Time Regulations protect fundamental rights which should sit out of reach of the political motivations of any government. These basic rights—although insufficient, and although far from ideal—should have no expiry date.

The Debate and the Vote

In the debate and motion on the fate of these employee safeguards, the Opposition also brought up the government’s stagnant response to the worryingly widespread ‘fire and rehire’ tactic, under which workers are made to quit and reapply on less favourable terms. The motion’s result was unsurprising: it passed, but functions only as an expression of support, rather than a legislative certainty. The Tories chose to abstain, an inaction tantamount to active confirmation of their unwillingness to offer even a crumb of security to the workers that have kept this country running.

In one of the night’s most bewildering moments, Kwasi Kwarteng dubbed the government’s record on workers’ rights ‘unimpeachable’. The contrary cannot be overstated. Millions are out of work, key workers are putting their lives at risk daily, families face financial uncertainty; the Covid crisis is itself a crisis of workers’ rights. A shocking 24 percent of workers have experienced a degradation of their employment terms since the first wave of the pandemic, and as more face unemployment, more are forced to accept those incursions.

In this context, the Left cannot only demand crumbs. Alternatives to the insufficient status-quo are more important than ever: to overcome the challenge, we need to go much further than this.