Frances O’Grady: Workers’ voices missing from debate on EU

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady.
TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady.
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I WAS too young to vote when we last had a European referendum back in 1975. But something got me interested in the campaign. It was an old photo of women workers on strike in Belgium. They carried placards demanding Europe deliver equal pay for work of equal value.

I remember thinking about the power of this idea: that by combining our strength across Europe, working people – in this case, women – could win a better life.

Of course, Yorkshire and Britain have changed a lot. Leeds, where I will be speaking tomorrow, is a transformed city, but the decision we are being asked to make is the same: in or out, ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. And the outcome will shape our country for a generation to come.

The voices of Yorkshire’s working men and women must get a proper hearing. So far, the debate has had little to do with people’s everyday working lives. It has been too dominated by the views of London boardroom bosses.

What workers want from Europe is decent jobs and wages, fairness at work and sustainable growth – but we’re not hearing from them in this debate. And this is a worry, because I believe a Leave vote carries with it significant risks for workers and the balance of power at work.

There is no doubt that many well-paid, skilled, and secure jobs would go over time. Almost half of our exports go to the EU, which accounts for seven of our 10 largest trading partners. And half of foreign direct investment depends on Europe.

Without access to a market of 500 million people, global firms would be more reluctant to invest in this region and other parts of the UK. This isn’t something for just businesses to worry about – it matters to unions and workers too. And it is sectors like high-value manufacturing where the risk is greatest.

Between 2007 and 2013, Yorkshire and the Humber received nearly 600 million euros in European Regional Development Funding. This money has helped create thousands of good jobs, cut carbon emissions and stimulated growth.

It has funded broadband access and digital technologies, regenerated derelict buildings and land in places like Bradford, and enabled new businesses to get off the ground.

Hull’s new renewable energy power plant, which will generate enough electricity to power 43,000 homes, has received £20m in EU grants.

This will help the Humber’s growing reputation as one of the world’s best places to develop environmental energy businesses.

Nearly 400,000 jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber – more than one in eight – are already associated with trade with the rest of the European Union.

The region has the third highest share of such jobs in the UK – testament to the ability of local businesses to secure markets, and the skills of local workers. A Leave vote would 
not destroy all of these jobs, 
but it would put a lot of them at risk.

And we could use our membership of the European Union to create more jobs. Working with unions across the EU, the TUC has developed a sustainable investment plan called “A New Path 4 Europe” which would produce across the European Union 11 million new, well-paid, skilled jobs in infrastructure investment, building homes, and extending broadband. Nearly half a million of these new jobs could be in the UK.

We need to talk about workers’ rights too. Brexit could mean kissing goodbye to many of the protections working people take for granted. For example, the right to paid time off for ante-natal appointments, time off to look after a child who is sick, and equal treatment for part-timers, temps and agency workers.

These rights come directly from our membership of the EU. Dismissed as Brussels ‘red tape’ by some, these rights have undeniably made working life safer, better and fairer for many.

Take the Working Time Directive. When it came into force in 1998, two million workers gained paid holidays for the first time ever. Millions now have more generous paid time-off as a result.

A Leave vote would put all these rights at risk.

And worse, leaving the 
EU would make it much 
harder to tackle the abuses of workers’ rights that many 
people – especially younger workers – face, like zero hours contracts.

Ultimately, the Brexit camp has to answer this question: if we left the EU, can they guarantee that the Conservative government will protect and extend those employment rights? I certainly wouldn’t trust them to.

Yes, the EU needs reform. We want a Europe that puts improving people’s jobs and livelihoods at its heart. But to stand a chance of shaping the future, we need to fight for it from within.

Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the TUC.