Update – What are the next steps towards Brexit?

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The EU referendum was held on 23 June 2016, where the UK voted to leave the EU by 51.9% to 48.1% on a turnout of 72.2%.

However, the referendum does not of itself mean that we are no longer part of the EU. Rather, rules for exiting the EU are contained in Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. The Treaty of Lisbon is an agreement between all heads of government of EU member states, which became law in 2009.

Article 50 provides for a two year negotiation period, which can only be extended by the unanimous agreement of all member states. No country has ever before withdrawn from the EU. However, trade agreements are similar in terms of complexity and can take up to 10 years to negotiate.

GMB was at the forefront of voicing opposition to TTIP, (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which the EU was trying to negotiate with the United States, to the detriment of British citizens and will continue to monitor any draft trade agreements that are proposed as a result of the Brexit vote.

Theresa May stated that she intended to trigger Article 50 before the end of March 2017. However, in the recent case of Miller v Secretary of State, the High Court held that the government did not have power of itself to trigger Article 50 and that, rather, this had to be done by parliament. The government appealed to the Supreme Court and a decision is expected shortly.

All in all, the process of exit from the EU is likely to be protracted but, regardless of whether Article 50 is triggered by the government or parliament, relevant to GMB members will be how the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will affect the rights of ordinary working men and women.

Of concern is that much employment protection derives from Europe. Many separate pieces of EU legislation protect employees in the UK workplace, for example:

  • working time protection
  • discrimination law
  • collective consultation rights
  • protection for agency workers
  • protection for part time employees
  • protection for fixed term employees
  • maternity rights
  • parental rights
  • protection for employees where a business transfers
  • health and safety laws.

Successive UK governments have so far been limited in seeking to restrict these rights because their hands are tied as to what they can do under EU law.

If and when we come out of Europe, therefore, the question will be whether these rights are maintained or whether they are removed. Without Europe’s employment law protections, there is the risk of a return to draconian Victorian era working conditions, together with all the insecurity, exploitation and poverty that this brings.

The track record of the current government and the previous coalition government as regards protecting rights in the workplace, is poor. On the contrary, the rights of employees have been eroded and access to justice has been restricted with, for example, the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees, mandatory ACAS Early Conciliation and the increase of the qualifying period in unfair dismissal cases from 1 – 2 years.

There are challenging times ahead of us. To make matters worse, so far there has been a veil of secrecy over the government’s EU exit strategy. The government is hiding behind the claim that it does not want to damage its negotiating position. However, what the government is failing to acknowledge is that it intends, in its negotiations, to damage the hard working men and women of this country for the benefit of a few.

Paul Maloney, Regional Secretary of GMB, Southern Region, commented,

‘The EU is not perfect – there is a lot wrong with it and that’s why GMB advocated an ‘angry’ remain vote. The government and the previous coalition government have also done little to protect ordinary workers. Rather, they support profit seeking employers to drive down terms and conditions of employment and recruit cheap labour while simultaneously seeking to blame immigration for society’s problems.

GMB advocates the fair movement of labour with full union access to workplaces to ensure fair recruitment practices and proper employment rights and protections for all.

The conditions of employment now being created by employers and the government are akin to those that existed in 1888, when GMB was established for the very reason to protect workers’ rights, health and safety and terms and conditions.

GMB has been at the forefront of protecting rights in the workplace. From matters ranging from blacklisting to the rights of workers in the gig economy, from challenging bogus self-employment to zero hours contracts, from protecting disabled workers to challenging mass redundancies, GMB has fought and won better protection for workers time and time again.

GMB is as relevant today as it was in 1888 and we will continue to seek to influence policy so we get the best possible outcome for working people in the UK.’

We will be keeping a close eye on issues associated with Brexit and how that will affect you in the workplace.  If you have any particular queries, please contact your GMB representative without delay.