After Brexit, UK seeks worker-rights reforms, setting up EU clash

UK reportedly wants to scrap 48-hour limit on length of working week but says it will not lower protections.

UK supermarket
The UK-EU Brexit deal allows Brussels to retaliate if the UK implements measures that are deemed to give it an unfair competitive advantage [File: Molly Darlington/Reuters]

The U.K. government is exploring reforms to workers’ rights that would break from European Union rules, potentially opening Britain up to retaliatory measures from the bloc.

Officials have drawn up proposals that would scrap the 48-hour limit on the length of the working week, according to a person familiar with the matter, who said the plans are preliminary and that ministers have made no decisions yet. The measures were first reported by the Financial Times.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said on Twitter that the government is “not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights.”

If the plans are pursued, they have the potential to cause friction with the EU just weeks after the U.K. sealed a trade deal with the bloc. Negotiations dragged on until just before Christmas, with the so-called level playing field of fair competition rules being one of the last areas of contention.

The agreement allows the U.K. and EU to set their own labor, environment, climate and social policies, but also permits retaliation if any changes result in “material impacts on trade or investment between the parties.”

Also being considered are changes to regulations around breaks during the working day, and a proposal not to include overtime when calculating some holiday pay allowances, according to the person. The government aims to make changes that can support businesses and growth, without undercutting worker protections, they said.

‘Enhanced’ Rights

“We have absolutely no intention of lowering the standards of workers’ rights,” the government said in a statement. “Leaving the EU allows us to continue to be a standard-setter and protect and enhance U.K. workers’ rights.”

Any proposals that do emerge will be put to a full consultation to ensure no policies that are pursued have any unintended consequences that diminish workers’ rights, the person said.

Opposition Labour Party Business Spokesman Ed Miliband accused ministers of “preparing to tear up their promises to the British people and taking a sledgehammer to workers’ rights,” and said his party will “fight tooth and nail” to defend existing protections.

Ripping Up Rights

“These proposals are not about cutting red tape for businesses but ripping up vital rights for workers,” he said in a statement. “The government wants Britain to compete on the back of ordinary working people losing their rights.”

While the U.K departed the EU sharing the same environmental and labor rules, the ability to free the country from Brussels red tape was hailed by supporters of Brexit as one its great prizes during the referendum campaign in 2016.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was one of the figureheads of that campaign, last week held a conference call with business chiefs during which he asked them to help him decide which regulations should be ripped up now that the divorce with the bloc is complete.

Source: Bloomberg