EU Referendum: Senior lecturer explains workers’ rights debate

PUBLISHED: 10:00 13 March 2016

Dr Heejung Chung, University of Kent

Dr Heejung Chung, University of Kent

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Dr Heejung Chung spoke to Kent on Sunday

With combatants on either side of the European debate voicing their own opinions, Kent on Sunday has started gathering academic, balanced opinions on each of the hot topics being discussed ahead of June’s referendum.

In the first of these articles, Dr Heejung Chung, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent talks us through the issue of workers’ rights.

There are lots of issues you keep hearing mentioned by those supporting the ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ campaigns: one of these is workers’ rights.

And, as with all referendum issues, you have to be careful about the way you interpret the arguments.

The UK has been a country where liberal policies on labour regulation have historically been more lax compared to other comparable European nations, such as the Nordic countries or Germany or France.

However, there are four areas which relate to working conditions and workers’ rights that have been influenced by the EU and may be at stake if Britain leaves it.

First, the working time directive that regulates the number of hours workers can work, their breaks, annual leave entitlements, and so on.

Second, the parental leave directives that set the ground rules for leave for all parents until children reach eight years of age.

Third are the fixed term contract and temporary agency work regulations that regulate the rights of fixed term and temporary agency workers, including the number of consecutive contracts employers can give to workers before it becomes permanent.

And last, and perhaps more importantly, the Transfer of Undertakings (TUPE) rules protect workers’ jobs and the terms and conditions of their contracts when businesses transfer ownership.

In any debate on working conditions in the EU, there are two different questions that need to be considered.

One is whether these rights would have been developed without the EU, and the second is whether these rights will remain intact if we leave the EU.

I think to a great extent the answer to these is yes to the first and maybe to the second. The EU has helped the UK catch-up on some types of regulations, especially those in relation to rights to leave and the protection of workers.

My view, which is shared by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), is that a lot of these regulations would not be in the form that they are if it was not for soft pressures – as opposed to hard pressure – from the EU.

But having said that, would there be a withdrawal from all these regulations if the UK exits the EU? That highly depends on the policy area in question and more importantly, who is in power at the next Parliament.

Although the UK falls behind some countries in labour regulations – especially in terms of how easy it is to hire and fire workers – in other respects it is not necessarily at the


In many cases, EU directives don’t enforce regulations that are beyond and above what we consider the very basic or lowest common denominator amongst its member states.

For example, if the EU were to introduce regulations on maternity leave, for example, it is likely that the current UK maternity leave provisions would not be far off from the EU directive. On the other hand, the TUPE and working time directives have made much more of an impact in the UK.

Further, regardless of the EU directives that are in place, the UK has chosen to opt out of some of them. An example of this is the working time directive that regulates the weekly number of hours workers can do – Britain allows individual workers to sign opt out clauses, which allow employers to make them work longer.

Although not all member states can decide to not adhere to these directives set in place by the EU, there is some wiggle room.

Similarly, even if the UK leaves the EU, this would not necessarily mean that the UK would withdraw all the regulations that have developed as a result of EU membership. Whether or not there will be major changes in workers’ rights and working conditions has more to do with the opinions of the current government and surrounding lobbying groups.

An example of this is the fact that many business leaders along with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have stated that they think it would be better for business to stay in the EU.

This may not necessarily mean that they support all EU regulations, but they too benefit from having some of these regulations in place and uniformly across Europe.

Even if there were to be changes in these regulations, these changes would not happen overnight. There would need to be parliamentary debate and votes on new legislation to change working conditions, rather than a simple removal of rights immediately following any Brexit vote.

However, I sympathise with the TUC point that once the protective mechanisms put in place via the EU directives are removed, the removal of workers’ rights and downgrading of working conditions may become easier especially in a Conservative


It’s also worth remembering one of the key reasons for the existence of the European Union, which was to build a stronger European market to compete in the global market.

Before the EU, when nation states were competing against each other, there was more of a threat of a downward spiral in terms of cost competition within Europe.

Without the EU, there may be a much higher likelihood of some countries competing against each other with very cheap labour costs and lax labour laws, which will pressure others to do the same.

Thus the EU and the role of its commission is to make sure there is at least a safety net for workers and markets to prohibit such downward competitions from happening. Furthermore, the EU also acts as a large market which can help regulate the working conditions of partners outside the Union through trade agreements.

Perhaps the over-riding consideration in any discussion of Brexit is the fact that the UK simply doesn’t know the conditions under which its labour market would have to operate in the event of leaving. We do, however, know the conditions the UK will be operating under if the vote is to remain, thanks to the deal David Cameron recently negotiated.

To sum up, how will Brexit change working conditions and labour laws of the UK? It highly depends on the conditions of the exit, the trade agreements that will be set in place afterwards, but perhaps more importantly who will take over the parliament in the next coming years.

■ What do you think? Share your views and join the debate. Email us at or write to: The Editor, KoS, Kent House, 81 Station Road, Ashford TN23 1PP.

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