Workers' Rights

Regulations are not Rights

The government is saying something like - 'Workers' Rights are not in Withdrawal Bill, but regulations will made through Employment Bill'. A clever slight of hand. Regulations - decided by parliament and enforced by inspectors - only ever prevent the worst.

Standards go way beyond basic legal requirements - and proudly so - witness Red Tractor and other environment & welfare standards. But many food and farm operators who had worked to these in past, as they also satisfied EU standards, will not bother as we come out of the Single Market. There is no incentive to invest in better welfare.

'Rights' are not laid down in laws or standards but fought for and won.

My predictions

Annual leave will become a luxury

Gangmasters penalties reduced

'Risk assessment' removed for some

Is Brexit going to improve food/farm labour conditions?

The enforcement of employment laws on farms is pretty rare. The Agricultural Wages Board that protected workers in terms of wages, sick pay, leave - and even health & safety, was abolished by the Coalition government in 2013. We are unlikely to see that resurrected, despite Wales, Scotland and NI maintaining theirs.

Any legal checks are particularly rare on the family farms in West. The owners of the plantations in Eastern England usually have decent basic employment/H&S systems in place - in case they get checked. They will know and follow basic laws - contract law, discipline procedures but that may not extend to annual leave. At that point workers are pretty/very unorganised to take it to management let alone employment tribunals.

The main thing so far re BJ's Bill is that decisions for employment appeals will go DOWN to judge level, where they will follow new government guidelines, instead of going up to High Court where they have to refer to the EU Courts. They have been know to pull UK into line over various employment laws.

Ten ways EU protects workers rights include limits on working hours, annual leave, time off, equal pay, maternity rights, parental leave, anti-discrimination, agency workers and health & safety. The parts most vulnerable are:

Working hours. Under EU law that UK resisted, employees cannot be forced to work more than an average of 48 hours a week. The Working Time Directive also made days off a legal requirement. Companies have to give staff a minimum of 48 hours off work per fortnight and a rest time of at least 11 consecutive hours (12 hours for young people) every day.

Holiday entitlements. The introduction of EU laws gave six million Britons better rights to paid leave, although now UK guarantees more days off than EU minimum, this os one to watch. On plantations it was main complaint that led to many joining a union.

Agency work EU rules adopted in 2008 saying temporary workers must be treated equally to directly-employed staff, including being given access to the same “amenities or collective facilities, were not popular with employees, and may be the first to be scrapped.

Food/Farm labour.

Think of low wages, long hours, gender exploitation, the waged/unwaged dichotomy, the ‘gig’ economy, the gap between CEOs and basic worker, the use of migrant labour, the urban-rural labour split, poor safety, the impact of science work on food quality, etc, There is much more light needed to look at current dynamics within the food system.

A 2-year Centre for Food Policy seminar series with Essex, Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities have led to series of papers on food work for the journal Organization. Here is overview paper by Steffen Boehm (now at Exeter), Marja Spierenburg (at Leiden, NL) and Tim lang (City, London)

I gave presentation at Essex meeting, where I gave this interview afterwards.

For more on labour and Brexit

UK Rural employment Laws

While there is a veneer of top tier companies, following standards, just below the surface lie all sorts of abuses. The two important UK laws that are very relevant are Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 was carried in response to the awful tragedy of Chinese cockle workers in Morecambe Bay. It was set up through the Ethical Trading Initiative with support from many sectors of society. There are heavy penalties for unlicensed working.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 sent "the strongest possible message to criminals that if you are involved in this disgusting trade in human beings, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be locked up. The Bill was sponsored by then Home Secretary Theresa May, who estimated 2000 in farm/food sector could be modern slaves.

Neither of these Acts were forced on UK by the EU. They both reacted to prevailing conditions.

Health & Safety

I represented Unite Rural workers on H&S Exec for a long time' first for pesticides, then broader health issues and finally trying to tackle farm fatalities. Throughout this was a tripartite body, where employers, employee representatives and public bodies meet together.

On pesticides, we got a law on the requirement to have license in order to spray. I suspect they will keep that - after all in the Archers - Eddie Grundy got the spraying qualification we promoted. We can construct similar Expert Committees to those in the EU, but they will have to be funded, and are more likely to take a 'risk based' approach.

You are more likely to be killed on a farm than any other workplace in Britain. BY a long way. That is mainly because there is poor union organisation on farms and older workers, of which there are increasing proportion, cannot get out of way of moving machinery or animals quickly enough. There are no safety reps, who have lots of law supporting them, on farms as the bosses' union refuses to recognise them, and so there also no safety committees. PS I helped get John Archer bumped off in the way he did..

The Health % safety @ Work Act 1974 (HASAWA) is unlikely to be changed as it contains broad principles and was set up before we entered the EU. However the 'Six-Pack' does come from EU law in the 1990s, and can see some organisations challenge to employers' requirements to carry out risk assessments. Can see that being challenged as 'red tape'.