UK government signals move to longer working hours, warns Prospect chief

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The government is sending the wrong message about building back better for workers after admitting it will be examining EU-derived protections, Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect told a conference yesterday.

Speaking at the British Safety Council’s first wellbeing in the workplace conference on 20 January, Clancy said: “The fact that the government’s first port of call in a post Brexit environment is the working time regulations is all we need to know about the agenda that could play out.”

Instead of taking forward positive changes from the pandemic such as more blended and home working, he said we may be just “working more hours”: “A sense of building back better gives way to being expected to work, with a heavier degree of scrutiny and a greater degree of surveillance [with the rise in computer monitoring technology] and we’ve lost the opportunity for a more positive future.”

Rest breaks and maximum driving times for lorry drivers are set under EU-derived laws and protections.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng confirmed this week that a review of workers’ rights was happening at the meeting of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee, saying: “I think the view was that we wanted to look at the whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep, if you like.”

Measures under consideration include ending the 48-hour maximum working week, which gives rights to paid breaks and which was introduced as a workplace health and safety measure.

Unions responded with frustration and concern. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “During the 2019 election, the prime minister promised the largest upgrade to workers’ rights in a generation. The new business secretary should get on with that.”

The HR and people development body, CIPD said that UK employment law already strikes the right balance for individuals and flexibility for employers. 

Rachel Suff, employee relations adviser, said: “The UK has one of the most lightly regulated labour markets in the OECD when it comes to employment protection for individual workers and our research on this issue with employers shows few concerns with the current framework.”

However, lawyers speculate that there would be limited room for maneuver to change protections under the terms of the trade agreement the UK and the EU signed on 30 December 2020.

In a blog post by lawyers from Clyde & Co , it says that commitments to the ‘level playing field’ would prevent either party from thoroughly weakening standards including health and safety and employment standards.

“The UK government will have to avoid any weakening of employment rights that has a significant impact on trade or investment, since this could lead to a major dispute and a risk of tariffs or suspension of trade.”

“A wholesale repeal of the Working Time Regulations is highly unlikely,” they write, although there could be “some minor amendments” such as the abolition of the 48-hour maximum working week.



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