What does Brexit mean for workers’ rights?

Theresa May has repeatedly said “Brexit means Brexit”. Now, the PM has announced withdrawal from the EU will start by March 2017.

But what does this mean for employment law and workers’ rights?

Great Repeal Bill

Speaking at the Conservative conference in Birmingham, the Prime Minister confirmed that there will be a Great Repeal Bill to revoke the 1972 European Communities Act, which was introduced to give supremacy to EU law over UK law.

The plan is that all EU laws will be converted into domestic law. You may be scratching your head here, thinking what is the point of leaving the EU, if we are just going to transpose EU law into British law? The idea is that Ministers will be able to undertake a pick and choose exercise – they will, after debate and scrutiny, be able to maintain, revoke or amend the EU law as they see fit.

At present, employment laws are a melting pot of domestic law and EU-derived law. In some cases, UK law predates EU law and in others, UK law exceeds minimum standards laid down in EU laws.

We don’t know yet which employment laws would be amended or revoked, but there are some EU-derived laws that businesses see as particularly costly, unnecessary and burdensome. For example, the Working Time Directive has caused great dissatisfaction for imposing limits on average weekly working time and providing strict rules on minimum rest periods. It is possible that Parliament would make changes to relax the rules for employers.

The Great Repeal Bill would also end the supremacy and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the UK. The ECJ interprets EU law and issues judgments that are binding on all EU member states. Decisions by ECJ, especially regarding holiday pay, have been forcefully condemned for the burdens they place on businesses.

Don’t panic!

Triggering the article does not mean we are out of the EU. It simply means that the exit discussions with Brussels will commence. Article 50 states that the exit procedure should be completed within two years, therefore we should no longer be a member of the EU by the summer of 2019. Given the complexity of the task, it is likely it will take longer.

Additionally, the Great Repeal Bill is only a draft law. As such, it must pass through the UK legislative process to become law. It is anticipated that it will face staunch debate and criticism in Parliament and will require various amendments.

Theresa May has provided some much-needed clarity, but there are still many unanswered questions. For the time being, however, nothing changes. It is business as usual.

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James Tamm

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