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Women Workers’ Rights and the Risks of Brexit – TUC

May 27, 2016

WomenBrexitThis report is written by employment lawyer Michael Ford QC who recently warned that Brexit would mean “all the social rights in employment currently required by EU law would be potentially vulnerable”.

Brexit risks “turning the clock black decades” on women’s rights, according to this report.

It says that the EUhas been instrumental in empowering working women and enabling them to challenge unequal pay and inequality at work.

It highlights the huge gains women have made in the workplace since Britain joined the EU including:

  •  Equal pay for work of equal value – Amendments to the Equal Pay Act required by EU law have allowed hundreds of thousands of low-paid women to win pay claims against employers who undervalued their work.
  •  Paid holidays for part-time women workers – The introduction of the Working Time Directive in 1998 resulted in more than 1.5 million part-time women workers gaining the right to paid holidays for the first time.
  •  Pregnancy discrimination – EU law required the UK government to make protection from dismissal because of pregnancy a day one right. Without this right women would have to wait two years before pursuing a claim of unfair dismissal.

Leaving the EU would allow a government with a deregulatory agenda to make sweeping changes to employment law, such as reducing paid holidays, parental leave entitlements, and discrimination protections for pregnant workers.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Women have made huge gains in the workplace as a result of EU membership, ranging from protection against pregnancy discrimination to fairer pay, holiday and pensions. Brexit risks turning the clock black decades on these hard-won rights.

“I think we should all be very worried when we hear leading Brexiters like Priti Patel describing EU social and employment protections as burdens. These laws have helped to improve the lives of millions of working women…….If we pull out of Europe all the leading employment law experts agree that it will be worse for workers’ rights. And it is women who stand to lose most.”

Key rights covered in the report include:

  1. Equal pay for work of equal value. The original Equal Pay Act only gave women equal pay with men in the same job or grade. However, amendments won by unions in the EU allowed women in the UK to challenge employers if they weren’t getting equal pay for work of equal value.

– In the past decade alone more than 300,000 women have taken equal pay claims, many based on the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. These include low-paid women workers, such as dinner ladies, carers and cleaners.

– Even the Dagenham Ford sewing machinists – whose strikes laid the ground for the Equal Pay Act – gained a pay rise from the new equal pay for work of equal value rules. They used them more than a decade after their original strike to get their jobs put on to a higher grade.

  1. Rights for pregnant workers and mothers in the workplace. Around 430,000 women workers a year have a new baby and rely on EU rights like paid time off for ante-natal appointments and protection from pregnancy and maternity discrimination

– EU law required the UK government to make protection from dismissal because of pregnancy a day one right. Without this right 1 in 5 pregnant workers (80,000) would not be able to claim, as the UK government’s qualifying period for other forms of unfair dismissal is 2 years. EU law also strengthened protection from discrimination because of pregnancy or maternity leave.

– Right to parental leave were also won at EU level. Hundreds of thousands of parents, particularly single mothers, rely on this right each year to help them balance work with childcare.

  1. Equal treatment for part-time women workers. Part-time women workers have been one of the chief beneficiaries of EU law. Part-time women workers were the group most likely not to have paid holidays before the Working Time Directive was implemented in 1998. It resulted in more than 1.5 million part-time women workers getting paid holiday for the first time.

– EU sex discrimination law has also given over half a million part-time women workers access to unfair dismissal rights and statutory redundancy pay.

– EU law has also made it mandatory for part-time women to have equal access to pensions.

Brexirters say we should govern ourselves – frankly I’d rather be protected from Tory governments. Only last week, justice minister Michael Gove said that “membership of the EU prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law”. The Tories are going to be in power for at least another four years – do we really trust them with our rights at work?


Earlier Conservative Governments, after all, vetoed earlier attempts to adopt Directives to introduce fair treatment for ‘atypical’ work, the Part-time Workers Directive was only extended to the UK when a Labour Government signed the Social Chapter, 101 and in both cases it was EU law alone which drove the national implementing legislation. Though I am not aware of any published suggestions thus far to remove them, Brexit would breathe new life into the deregulatory agenda with which the Regulations are in tension.

In the event of Brexit, I expect that any Government with a deregulation agenda would repeal or at least radically reduce the effect of the Agency Workers Regulations. The hostility of many businesses to the Directive and the protection of agency workers is exemplified by the Beecroft report for the ast Government, which took the extraordinary step of suggesting the Government should break the law by refusing to implement the Directive.

Conversely, if an administration favourably disposed to protecting this vulnerable category of worker wished to introduce laws which gave a higher level of worker protection than the base rules in the Directive, it could do so.

Without the Working Time Directive there would be almost no legal protection against long hours of work in the UK, and no legal requirements for rest or paid holiday. … f the UK left the EU and WTR were revoked, an employer could dictate whatever contractual terms it wanted about working time: express terms could require working many hours a work, could leave workers ‘on call’ for 24 hours a day or could confer no paid holiday at all. Prior to WTR, for example, it was not uncommon for workers to be granted no paid annual leave…

(Before TUPE) At common law, a transfer of a business from A to B operated as a dismissal of the workers employed by A because the employment relationship is personal. If the dismissal was with notice, the termination would not be a breach of contract; if it was without notice, damages would be restricted to lost earnings in the notice period. The contract of employment therefore provided employees with no sufficient remedies.

The report is online here

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