By Agnes Jongerius MEP, Coordinator of Socialist & Democrats Group in Employment and Social Affairs Committee
Jude Kirton-Darling MEP Labour spokespersons on Employment and Social Affair
Larry Elliott's provocative opinion column ("Don’t be fooled – the EU is no defender of workers’ rights" 24/10/2019) led to pretty lively discussions on social media, as it should. Elliott’s assertions have been robustly countered on Twitter, notably by Professor Michael Dougan - an EU law expert specialised in free movement and equal treatment rights - and Larry Elliott's view that "social Europe never delivered all that much" simply isn't shared by British labour lawyers
It's not shared by Trade Unions either, whether in the UK or across Europe. The reason for this is that while the EU is clearly not a socialist paradise (a criticism often heard on the other side of the pro-brexit spectrum), it's impossible to dismiss single-handedly all the EU is achieving for workers and their rights, and the progress we can expect in the future according to the new EU Commission’s commitments.
Larry Elliot conveniently avoids mentioning the most symbolic of all EU labour regulation: the Working Time Directive. A long-standing obsession of the Tories, it remains the only standard applicable in the UK protecting workers against longer hours. For this basic right, as for many others like paid annual leave, workplace equality, part-time work, maternity and parental leave, workplace safety, etc. the EU has legislated to ensure minimum standards applicable across the EU. This does not prevent any government adopting more generous rights, but it gives us a safety net against Tory-led deregulation. In fact where we've seen reductions in rights recently in the UK, has been precisely in areas where the EU does not set minimum standards, like unfair dismissal or access to tribunals. This clearly goes to show the value of this safety net.
Larry Elliott's argument that this is mere pessimism, assuming that the Tories will be for ever in power, is like saying we don't need the International Labour Organisation because we can do socialism in our own country. This totally misses the point that as long as we keep trading with the rest of the world, we need decent labour standards abroad as well as at home to protect UK workers against unfair competition. This is actually a redline for the EU in negotiating the withdrawal agreement and future relationship with the UK: ensuring a level playing field, so that EU workers are protected against future deregulation in the UK.
Larry Elliot is economical with his facts. He uses the Laval ECJ case to demonstrate a point without recognising that MEPs reversed the judgement through the revision of the EU Posting of Workers Directive last year. The new rules introduced equal treatment between posted workers and their local co-workers, enshrining the principle of equal pay for equal work in the same workplace. Employers are now obliged to offer equal pay from the start of the posting, as well as the same allowances and reimbursement for travel and accommodation costs. It also allows the UK to deem national collective agreements as mandatory for posted workers – something that effectively solves the problems resulting from the Viking and Laval ECJ case law which Larry Elliot fails to acknowledge. These rules provide for effective protection against social dumping, while preserving freedom of movement. There are no such rules in any other international agreement, whether in ILO Conventions or in any free trade agreements. Without them, even outside of the EU, UK workers would be left exposed to the undercutting of their rights and wages by unscrupulous bosses.
True, Social Europe is not currently where it should be. And one of the main reasons why further progress has not been made over the year is because of obstruction from successive UK governments. Fortunately the tide is turning, and the adoption of a European Pillar of Social Rights in 2017 signals a new beginning for social Europe. While we were infighting over Brexit, the EU has already adopted not just tighter rules on posted workers, but also on health and safety, on transparent and predictable working conditions (protecting zero-hours contract workers), and created a European Labour Authority to name but a few recent achievements. With the new Commission soon to be installed the future Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Luxembourg Socialist Workers' Party's Nicolas Schmit, has laid out an ambitious agenda including determined action to give equal rights to exploited gig economy workers.
These are battles we can't fight on our own. This was the great realisation of the TUC in 1987 when Delors spoke about social Europe. We need to remember this lesson quickly or we’ll give the Tories a free hand to strip back all protection.”