Many myths surround EU labour law. Anne Davies tackles these head on and argues that the UK workers and businesses are very much protected rather than inhibited by such labour market legislation
The United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union (EU) is always fraught with political difficulty and since labour law tends to attract extra scrutiny during times of recession now is a good time to have an informed debate about the advantages and disadvantages of EU employment law. This could be a chance to tackle some of the myths surrounding the subject.
Quite a lot of our labour law has its origins in EU law: for example, equality law, rules on working time, and requirements for firms to consult their workforce (for example, when there’s a plan to make lots of people redundant). But some areas of law have been put in place by the UK Parliament and government without any EU involvement: these include the national minimum wage, unfair dismissal, and laws on trade union membership and industrial action.
Myth 1: EU employment law is imposed on us from Brussels, and we don’t get any say in it.
Myth 2: EU employment law damages the competitiveness of the UK economy.
Although employment laws do impose costs on businesses, they often bring benefits too. For example, limits on the number of hours people can work might seem bureaucratic to implement, but they may also help to make work places safer and workers happier and more productive. Just looking at costs only tells half the story.
It’s not clear that cutting labour costs is the best route to a competitive economy. Lots of countries worldwide can claim to be cheaper than the UK, so it may be better to think about the ‘added value’ we might offer: highly educated and adaptable workers who are worth the extra money, for example.
Anti-discrimination law is a good example of something I hope we’d want to keep.
If EU law didn’t set minimum standards for employment law in the member states, it’s worth thinking carefully about what would happen within the EU. It’s often assumed that the UK would be able to deregulate its labour market and thus gain a competitive advantage against its neighbours, but now that the EU consists of 27 member states, some with very low wage levels, it is not at all clear that the UK would win any ‘race to the bottom’ in labour standards. Perhaps, rather than being constrained by the EU, we are in fact protected by it.
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