“Crippling”, “back-breaking” and a “burden”.
These are all words Brexiteers Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson have used to describe EU employment regulation.
Despite Theresa May’s promises that rights will be protected, it’s no surprise then that work place regulations have been first on the chopping board as a way to make the UK’s economy lighter and more “agile” post-Brexit.
This looming threat is set – arguably thanks to the very same political party which is now leading us out of the EU – against a backdrop of declining trade union membership in the UK. For reasons that are complex and, on the face of it, hard to understand in the post-financial crash world, workers seem less inclined to challenge changes to their employment conditions.
And judging by the comments of those influential ministers, things aren’t looking massively up for many of the rest of us on the pay-roll post-Brexit.
Still, there may be hope to be found in a group of people fighting for precarious workers’ rights, whose efforts could provide a template across many sectors.
The people who clean university campuses across the UK work in a sector blighted by outsourcing and, shall we say, creative readings of workplace laws. Nevertheless, cleaners have fought successfully for their entitlement to a living wage, sick and holiday pay by forming their own unions, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW).
“Most of IWBG are migrants, and I’m a migrant myself and now I am the President of the Union, we help members with English classes, we give them workshops on employment law…we empower them and make them feel they can fight for their rights and they shouldn’t allow their employers to exploit them so they can improve their conditions and pay” says Henry Chango Lopez.
Unable to grind the country to a halt with strikes, these unions have been more strategic, combining targeted industrial action with protests and public pressure in the press and on social media.
During a University of London cleaners’ strike-cum-protest outside a funder’s event at Senate House, high profile guests in evening attire dodged protestors as they tried to enter the soiree, losing the university face – as well as money for the extra security they had to hire.
“There’s an additional cost to them and an additional cost from the contractor; it’s not just about embarrassment, you also have to have an economic impact” says Emiliano Mellino, an organiser with the IWGB.
It’s these types of radical tactics that bigger unions will have to adopt if they are to tackle the challenges to workers’ rights that Brexit appears set to bring.
While institutions like the University and College Union (UCU) have failed to secure academic staff a pay rise in nine years, the UVW secured in-house jobs for all its cleaners at the LSE after just ten months of strikes, several protests and two occupations of the university campus – ensuring they would receive the employee benefits denied to them while working for an outsourced private contractor.
More prominent unions can adapt, but it will involve letting go of centralised power and giving autonomy back to workers to run their own campaigns; just like the University of London cleaners. There is form for this: Unite and GMB are organising cleaners in the public sector and recently the Bakers Union won the most significant pay rise for McDonald’s workers in ten years.
If workers want their rights protecting after Brexit, they can’t rely on Theresa May’s goodwill. They’ll have to start doing it for themselves. What’s more, there is little point waiting until the UK has left the EU to begin the fight: the battle for workers’ rights needs to being now, while there is still time to influence the type of Brexit we might get.