Liz Truss risks igniting another row with the EU which could lead to tariffs on British exports if she tries to dilute workers’ rights too much, legal experts and union leaders have said.
The new prime minister is reportedly considering a review of workers’ rights as part of a wider “bonfire” of 1,500 EU laws she wants to take off the UK’s statute books before the end of 2023.
Under the level playing field agreements in the Brexit trade and cooperation (TCA) deal sealed by Lord Frost with the EU, the UK can deviate from rules in the bloc but not diverge to such an extent that it gives the UK a business advantage over rivals on the continent and Ireland.
Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge and a Brexit expert, said the deal allowed safeguards including tariffs to be imposed by either side if the playing field was unlevelled.
“The [deal] allows the UK to diverge from EU rules on workers’ rights but if the divergence affects trade and investment then the EU can start the non-regression’ procedure against the UK,” she said.
“This involves consultation, followed by the establishment of a special panel of experts and ultimately retaliation against the UK if the UK is found to be in breach. This means tariffs,” she said.
Workers’ rights, including maximum weekly hours, equal pay for men and women, holiday and rest rights, are enshrined in laws retained from the EU including the working time directive.
As the self-styled “Brexit-delivery prime minister”, Truss’s proposed timetable to get rid of some of EU laws has been accelerated with promises to scrap all remaining EU regulations by the end of 2023.
But diverging significantly on rights would not just add tensions to the already strained relations with the EU, it would also prompt a major row with the unions.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has demanded assurances from the government that “hard-won” workers’ rights are not in the line of fire after statements by Jacob Rees-Mogg.
As Brexit opportunities minister in Boris Johnson’s government, Rees-Mogg promised a bonfire of EU rules with a five-year expiry date, or sunset clause, on 1,500 pieces of EU legislation.
He told ministers it would reduce the burden of regulation on business, prompting unions to call for guarantees that workers’ rights were not among them.
The TUC’s secretary general, Frances O’Grady, said: “Threatening hard-won workers’ rights is the last thing the country and working people need.
“Holiday pay, equal pay for women and men, safe limits on working hours and parental leave are just a few of the rights underpinned by retained EU law. These are all essential – not a nice-to-have.”
The TUC has said the UK is already falling behind the EU on workers’ rights in areas such as the gig economy, and if EU legislation were eroded, inequalities and rights would be harder to rectify in future in Britain.
“Ministers are threatening to rip up workers’ legal rights while attacking their ability to defend their working conditions through collective action,” said O’Grady.
“The Conservatives promised to protect and enhance workers’ rights. Now they seem determined to take a sledgehammer to them instead.”
The UK’s commitment to the International Labour Organization (ILO) standards, including the right to strike, is also referenced in the TCA.
The TUC has complained to the ILO over a new law rushed through by Grant Shapps, targeting railway strikers, which allows employers to use agency workers.
If there was a negative finding by the ILO, the EU may also intervene under the TCA, said Jeff Kenner, professor of European law at the University of Nottingham.