Frances O’Grady: Making Europe work for the workers

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NOW that the Referendum Bill is being considered by Parliament, it really feels like the campaign about whether or not Britain should stay in the EU is gearing up. But will that referendum do anything for the vast bulk of people not obsessed with the detail of Britain’s membership of the EU?

Some of the discussions – about where the European Parliament should be based or what should be the acceptable shape of bananas – feel a million miles away from the day-to-day concerns of people in the UK. But the referendum will have a direct and long-term impact on the future success of regions like Yorkshire.

Jobs and growth in Yorkshire are at stake. German-based multinational Siemens has put millions into turbine manufacturing in Hull which could create lots of high-skill, high-wage jobs. The future of carbon capture technology and advanced manufacturing in South Yorkshire will depend on our future relationship with Europe. And Yorkshire food and drink firms that are looking to export more, along with the important finance sector in Leeds, will also be affected.

Unions represent people in those jobs and in the communities around them, and we want Europe to be doing more to create decent jobs, raise wages, and protect us at work. Some of the protections we have are under threat.

The rights to a paid holiday and rest breaks for everyone are a direct result of European Union legislation, despite objections from the then Conservative government of John Major. European directives on equal treatment for part-time, temporary and agency workers (which also protect full-time and permanent workers from undercutting) are vital parts of a modern labour market. Yet David Cameron is quietly trying to renegotiate those rights with the backing of some employers and his Eurosceptic backbench MPs.

He also wants a moratorium on new rights at work – for example rights for people with caring responsibilities, or clamping down on zero-hours contracts. That would mean that as people’s working lives change, their rights would stay the same, becoming more and more outdated. The Prime Minister has even suggested that all workplace rights should be decided country by country rather than across Europe, which would encourage employers to drive people’s rights at work down to the lowest possible level in a competitive race to the bottom.

The Prime Minister’s renegotiation strategy is playing with fire. Working people aren’t going to vote to stay in an EU that doesn’t work for them.

Polling published in May by the TUC revealed that British people are far more likely to want to remain part of the EU if it leads to better pay and rights at work. The survey of 4,000 UK voters showed that 55 per cent of the public would be more supportive of Britain’s membership of Europe if it did more to help working people get decent pay and conditions

By contrast, fewer than one in four said they would be more supportive of EU membership if it did more to cut what some people call “red tape” on businesses (which usually means rights for working people). So, trade unions are setting out an alternative agenda for a 21st century Europe ahead of the referendum. A Europe that works for Britain.

First, we want Europe to work with Britain to create sustainable growth – good jobs, with decent pay that use people’s skills and do not harm the environment. That would require investment in more homes, broadband connections and green industries.

The European Trade Union Confederation – which the TUC helped to create 40 years ago a – has developed a sustainable investment plan that would create over 10 million new, good jobs.

Second, we want to keep the rights at work that we got from Europe and improve them where necessary. We need better provision for families caring for children and the aged, for instance, and stronger controls on zero-hours contracts and agency work.

And third, we want to bring fairness back into the workplace – more say for the workers who make Britain’s businesses great; and cracking down on bad bosses or landlords abusing migrant workers to undercut wages or create overcrowded housing.

People need reasons to vote “yes”, and cutting back on their rights at work isn’t going to convince anyone. Europe is at its best when it meets the interests of both business and workers.

Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the TUC.