Tory group’s bid to repeal Brussels social and employment legislation is smokescreen to tear up workers’ rights, says TUC
The TUC has accused Conservative Eurosceptics of using their call for a repatriation of powers to the UK as a smokescreen for plans to tear up workers’ rights.
The union attack came after the Fresh Start group of Tory MPs said their primary objective was to see the return of social and employment law from Brussels.
The TUC claimed the Tories were seeking to undermine a vast array of labour law that has emerged from the EU over the past 15 years as part of the creation of a single market.
Fresh Start’s main two targets are the working time directive and the temporary agency workers directive, but the TUC says there are also threats to the transfer of undertaking directive, which guarantees rights when one firm is bought by another, as well as to health and safety directives, rights to information, parental leave, employment protection for part-time workers and equal pay.
The backbench group, representing 130 Tory MPs, admitted its call for a complete repatriation of social powers would require treaty changes, but said the Conservatives should settle for nothing else.
Fresh Start argues that just as not all EU countries are members of the eurozone or the Schengen free-movement area, the same labour market rules are not required across the entire EU.
“We should accept the differing circumstances in EU countries and enable flexibility for member states as part of a Europe-wide pro-competition, pro-growth strategy,” the group said in its manifesto, published on Wednesday.
If it is not possible for David Cameron to negotiate a treaty change, Britain should build an alliance to repeal legislation, the manifesto says.
Failing that, “the UK should seek to negotiate a complete opt-out of all existing EU social and employment legislation and to introduce an emergency brake to cover future legislation in this field”.
The manifesto, containing a broadly sympathetic foreword by the foreign secretary, William Hague, is seen by Downing Street as filling in the gaps in some of the broad demands set out by the party in its 2010 manifesto.
Cameron is not expected to put forward a detailed list of demands to the UK’s EU partners in his much-heralded speech on Friday in The Hague, partly on the basis that it is not wise to set out negotiating demands so early in the process.
Fresh Start has no such inhibitions, saying the repeal of the working time directive is vital because of specific national factors, such as the NHS, and the different labour models in place across the EU.
But the TUC said: “The Conservatives want a free market Europe without workers’ rights, controls on the financial sector, equality laws, human rights and so on.
“The PM’s strategy is that if he can blackmail the rest of the EU into that, then he will put that to a referendum and seek the British people’s endorsement.”
TUC officials said the working time directive had a series of opt-outs in UK law including the right of a worker to opt out from the regulations altogether, as well as exemptions for autonomous workers, such as managers.
Other exemptions applied to the armed forces, emergency services and police, workers in security and surveillance, domestic servants in a private household, certain categories of seafarers, sea-fishermen and workers on vessels on inland waterways.
The TUC said the rule provided flexibility allowing employees to work more than 48 hours in one week, so long as the average over 17 weeks was less than 48 hours a week.
As the Conservative attack becomes clearer and more detailed, there is likely to be a reappraisal by the trade union movement of its attitude towards the EU.
After years of hostility the TUC embraced the EU as “the only card game in town” in the late 1980s following 10 years of Thatcherism, realising that the EU was the best way to protect its members.
But, more recently indifference has been growing.
Tony Burke, the assistant general secretary at the Unite union, recently said: “There are workers – in and outside of trade unions – who take for granted the pro-worker legislation emanating from the EU, as though it has always been there. And there are those who misguidedly express anti-Brussels sentiments without recognising what they could lose.”