Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Learning the things that a EU activist needs to know about employment rights (Institute of Employment Rights meeting)

When looking at how people voted the 64% voting leave of C2 AND DE voters makes them a key group whose concerns we need to take on board if we are to build sufficiently large majority against Brexit to stop it. That’s why I went to the Institute of Employment Rights meeting last night on Brexit and Employment Rights.
It is a pity that they don’t record their meetings as so many good points were made many of which I no longer recall.
Martin Smith began outlining the casualization of many peoples jobs. He drew attention to how the problem is far greater than normally recognized. I of course had heard of zero hours contracts but not of how many have contracts that guarantee so few hours that they might as well be on a zero hours contract. This was a key problem for us during the referendum. Not because Europe itself is to blame - as someone said later in zero-hours contracts are very much a British problem. The trouble is that telling people that Brexit risks Trades Union Rights doesn’t cut much ice with people whose jobs are so precarious that any kind of employment rights is a dead letter.
Sandy Fredman then outlined how unions uniting across borders at the Europe level had been key in gaining many rights. From on I find it difficult to recall who said what. A whole host of examples of employment rights under threat were given. This is the list of the rights (wholly or partially sent to me after the meeting proof of employment terms, protection for fixed term workers, protection for part time workers, protection for agency workers, maternity rights,parental leave, discrimination law, equal pay, health and safety, tupe (that’s basically the transfer of the rights of workers when they are transferred to a new employer), information and consultation, collective redundancy consultation, european works councils, protection of wages in event of employer insolvency. Even if they don’t all lapse immediately on Brexit many will survive only as statutory instruments (which can be removed on the whim of the government) and many rest on rulings of the European Court of Justice which Theresa May has made it her priority to remove us from.
The next speaker did bring up some things that were less comfortable for a Europhile like myself such as the  Viking and Laval cases. No, I hadn’t heard of those two either before yesterday. He did concede that Trades Unions in Britain were not the most seriously harmed by them (if I remember correctly because things were already so bad that the cases didn’t make things much worse). However, my quick reading on the Laval case does make me think that the kind of solutions we need to protect both local workers and the right of free movement of people (eg insisting that wages given to migrants match locally negotiated rates) might be harder.
Then there were questions. I had a question but most of the questions were speeches so I time was quickly running out. I can’t complain - normally my questions are really speeches - this is the part of the meeting when those who are not on the platform get their say. Of course, we had a Socialist Party guy tell us what wonderful thing Brexit was and how it was a great defeat for the establishment - frankly delusional.
More typical was the guy who said he didn’t love the EU but had voted remain because of all the threats to workers rights that had been outlined by the speakers. The two who did put a for-Europe point of view (rather than simply seeing Brexit as a bad thing) were Nicola Countouris and Sandy Fredman. Nicola Countouris emphasized the positive aspects original aim of building a Federal and that this had been pressure from British governments that undermined that and the social rights that went with that. Sandy Fredman was eloquent in denouncing how “the people have decided” was both authoritarian and undemocratic.

But the meeting was then over and I never got chosen to pose my question - so I went up to the platform and asked anyway. “What do the pro-Europe groups need to take on board in relation to workers rights”. The person I asked came back with “Your group is trying to stop Brexit or just a soft Brexit?” “Stop Brexit altogether if we can - soft Brexit is plan B.”
“You should go for soft Brexit.” Having just marched with 100,000 people in largest pro-EU march there has ever been in Britain I wasn’t going to be convinced to give up on staying in Europe just yet. I knew his point of view. During the meeting he had explained that while he had voted remain he saw now prospect of the Labour party winning a general election on the basis of staying in. I don’t see any prospect of Labour winning on a pro Brexit platform which will see them losing shed loads of votes to the Lib-Dems. But what will change his mind is if he sees the pro-Europe groups showing staying power and us winning over more people to remain - not anything I might have said so I moved things back on what I knew better than I workers rights. And I get the list of key workers rights dependent on the EU that I quoted above.

But the most useful think I took away from the meeting was what someone had said earlier. The key to undercutting hostility towards migrants is sector wide negotiation of wages and conditions binding on all firms in that sector. Or to frame in our terms in which Brexit is not a done deal. It’s the key to winning people over to the value of the EUs free movement of people .