Life at work: why being a member of the EU matters

Posted by ap507 at Mar 07, 2016 04:25 PM |
Researchers from the Schools of Law and Management discuss employment rights for workers in the UK as a member of the EU

Written by Pascale Lorber, Oxana Golynker, Lisa Rodgers (Law School) and Benjamin Hopkins (School of Management) - University of Leicester

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Being a member of the EU has meant, over the years, the access to essential employment rights for workers in the UK. European Law has impacted on most of the life of the employment relationship, from working time and holiday to restructuring of the workplace. Those rights have primarily come from European Directives but have also been further defined and interpreted by the European Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Since the accession to the then European Community, successive governments have transposed such Directives into UK law, thus hiding the origin of the rules. For example, the Working Time Directive implemented into the Working Time Regulations of 1998 established straightforward rights which have evolved and been interpreted to allow workers to have a better work-life balance, appropriate rest breaks and paid holidays. A maximum of 48 hours week, daily, weekly and annual rest breaks (currently 28 days annual leave per year) were European standards, although the UK was one of five member states to allow the use of an opt-out. Pre-1998, the individual contract dealt with such issues, either influenced by collective agreements if trade unions were present in the workplace or imposed by employers.

Similarly, the right of part-time workers, fixed term employees and agency workers to have access to the same remuneration or other terms and conditions than their equivalent full-time or permanent workers was initiated by European Directives.  It is noteworthy, however, that in the case of the Agency Workers Directive there was significant delay from its inception in 2002 to its implementation in the UK in the form of the Agency Working Regulations in 2011.  Other fundamental rights include the protection against discrimination on grounds of age, religion or sexual orientation (gender, disability and race are also protected by EU law but were the subject of UK acts prior to the introduction of European norms). Individual workers are guaranteed continuity of employment and working conditions if they are transferred to another employer (with certain exceptions). They should also be able to be heard via employee representatives for decisions that affect the workforce (automatically for situations such as collective redundancies and on most aspects related to working conditions when consultative committees or equivalent fora exist).

The European Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has also played a significant role in extending rights originating from European Directives. As national courts request assistance in interpreting European law, the CJEU recently indicated that a Leicester British Gas worker should be paid holiday pay equivalent to that he received as an average income. His salary package included a basic minimum sum and result-based commission. His employer originally only paid him the basic part of the pay while he was on holiday. The Court effectively indicated that taking holiday should not have a negative consequence on income (Lock v British Gas). Similarly, in cases that involved other countries, the European Court indicated that if sick on annual leave, the latter could be rescheduled. While the cases were brought by Spanish and German workers, it also benefitted UK workers as the European Court’s interpretation affects all EU employees.

In the modern dynamic and globalised economy, workers move not only between jobs, but also between countries. Membership in the European Union means that British workers who work in another Member State can enjoy equal treatment regarding any conditions of employment and work, in particular, remuneration, dismissal, reinstatement and re-employment (Regulation 492/2011 on freedom of movement of workers within the Union). British workers who live and work in another Member State are also entitled to social advantages on the same grounds as nationals of that Member State. Their children enjoy the same rights to education as children of the nationals on the host country. The partners and other family members of British workers are also entitled to equal treatment in the host country. Exit from the European Union would mean that those rights will no longer be available to British workers.

A possible exit of the EU may endanger access to some of those rights. First, the UK would not be bound by those Directives. The law could theoretically be reformed to either return to the situation pre-Directives or significantly alter the content of the law (for example remove the 48 hour maximum working week). Indeed, even as a Member State of the EU, the UK has altered or delayed implementation of these Directives, as seen in the examples of the Working Time and the Agency Workers Directives.  While it is unlikely that all EU employment law be abandoned (some of it being on the statute book for nearly 20 years, giving certainty to employers and employees alike), reforms are possible, and indeed likely. It is necessary only to look at the terms of the recent Working Time (Limitation) Bill (setting limits on the scope of working time rights), to understand the deregulatory intent of the current UK government. Second, the UK would not have to apply the judgements of the European Court of Justice, potentially depriving UK workers of rights (such as full holiday pay for Mr Lock) available to their European counterparts. When individuals vote in the referendum, they may therefore wish to consider how this may impact on their working life.

The consequences of Brexit will be discussed at a research seminar organised by the Law School as a joint event of European Law and Policy Research Cluster and Centre for European Law and Integration on 27 April 2016.

The seminar will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Law School.

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