Live Blog: Unite conference on EWCs and employment law after Brexit

Unite reps discuss post-Brexit workers’ rights on day two of the special two-day Unite conference in Esher, where Unite reps on European Works Councils (EWCs) are already discussing the union’s campaign on Brexit, to defend jobs, rights and investment.

Unite has more EWC reps – and therefore more international connections – than any union in the UK, with reps working in large multinational companies that range from Ford to EasyJet to Barclays, which is why Unite is demanding a seat at the table in future Brexit negotiations.

Follow our rolling coverage of the conference below as reported by Ryan Fletcher, live in Esher:

And that’s a wrap (12.45)
Thanks for tuning into our liveblog covering Unite’s conference on EWCs and the future of UK workers’ rights outside the EU. Missed yesterday’s live coverage of the conference? Catch up here.

Shadow Brexit minister: Labour will fight for workers (12.30)
Shadow Brexit minister Kier Starmer takes to the podium.

He is defending Labour’s position on Article 50, saying he didn’t campaign to remain by telling people he wanted to know what their opinions were. He told people there was a real choice to be made and the Leave vote won.

“We need to be clear and honest. If Article 50 wasn’t triggered there would have been a general election within six weeks and then the House would have been packed with hard Brexiteers and maybe even UKIP,” he says.

He says that it was the most difficult period he’s had in his professional life but now it’s over, Labour will come together. He said the real substance for affecting the direction of Brexit lies elsewhere.

He mentions the Great Repeal Bill and says Labour is going to fight tooth and nail as it passes through Parliament to make sure EU protections are retained and protected.

“We’ll bloody well fight for that – that’s going to be a fight,” he tells the conference.

Starmer turns to the fear that the Prime Minister “can now go off and make any old deal she likes” and if she doesn’t get what she wants, she will turn UK into a tax haven.

Starmer says this isn’t possible because she can’t change domestic law around the negotiation table and that would be needed for her to take the country in such a radical direction.

He says the end of the Article 50 negotiations will define the UK’s exit from the EU and any transitional agreements, which he hopes will happen so the country doesn’t go off a cliff edge.

However the “really important agreement comes after that and will define the new EU/UK relationship,” he says

Starmer says Labour will fight to retain access to the single market, science funding and cross-border collaboration. The shadow Brexit minister says four things matter: tariff free access, barrier free access, a deal for services as well as good and regulatory alignment.

Unite GS: EWCs under threat (11.26)
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey is speaking about the importance of EWCs.

He says that in a world where capital and profit moves seamlessly across borders, EWCs are an example of a social partnership catching up to that reality.

“A mechanism by which workers come together, resolve problems and improve their representation,” he says.

He says EWC are needed in liberalised markets to “offer workers representation and protections to hold the capitalist class to account.”

He says he has never been a cheerleader “for the neo-liberal agenda at the heart of the European project.”

“But it’s clear to me, now that the UK is leaving the European Union, that free-market cross-border capitalism is not under threat,” McCluskey adds.

“But the social and employment protections guaranteed by the EU most certainly are.”

McCluskey says it’s of great concern to hear anecdotal evidence that some employers are already looking at ways to prevent workers from taking up their EWC positions – before EU negotiations have begun.

“So let me say to those employers directly, let our workers’ reps carry out their duty defending UK jobs and industries during this crucial negotiation phase,” he says.

He says the law is clear that while the UK is still part of the EU, reps must be allowed to participate in EWCs.

“And for this reason too — because these negotiations must include the possibility of UK workers retaining their right to participate in EWCs after the UK exits from the EU,” he says.

He says that it is surreal that large British companies with thousands of workers in the UK and across the EU, will be forced to operate a EWC but could stop British workers from participating in them.

Turning to Unite’s demands, McCluskey says that the union’s calls are clear: an ambitious industrial strategy, tariff-free access to the single market and the customs union and retaining and protecting workers’ and environmental rights.

The government approach to Brexit risks jobs and investment, McCluskey says. He says that although Unite campaigned to remain it accepts the result, but that does not give the government a blank cheque for a hard Brexit that will hurt working people.

“Unite supports in-depth parliamentary scrutiny of the terms of exit as well as ‘a seat at the table’ for trade unions,” he says. The union will not shy away from defending members jobs by seeking to influence the political debate.

Red line over workers’ rights (10.31)
Hayward says that we’ve got to increase awareness of how important EU rights are. Trade Unions fought for those rights, we went over to Europe and argued with MEPs for them and we will keep fighting for them, he says.

There is a red line for these things and we cannot allow Britain to become a social dumping area for businesses based on exploiting people, he says.

“We’re in for a big battle, but those red lines are worth fighting for.”

Keeping EWC access (10.18)
Unite international officer Jonathan Hayward is answering a question from a delegate about the dangers facing EWCs and what individual reps can do about maintaining access after Brexit.

Hayward says the problem is that EWC rights are upheld by the European Court of Justice. He gives an example of a recent dispute of EWC access that he was involved in that was resolved by citing ECJ case law.

Leaving the ECJ raises big issues that need to solved at a national level, Hayward says. His says that individual reps should push for annexes or clauses to keep EWC access in their workplace.

One of the problems is that without legal entitlement to keep EWC rights, maintaining access could be used as a bargaining chip that could disadvantage British workers.

He is also clear that many UK bosses wouldn’t be sad to see EWCs go.

“Let’s face it: UK management don’t like you lot going to Europe and talking to their bosses, do they?” he says.

‘Sceptical’ over workers’ rights (9.57)
Thompson’s Solicitors Chief Executive Steve Cavalier is speaking about how leaving the EU will affect workers rights in the UK.

He says that once Article 50 is triggered the European Communities Act of 1972 will no longer apply in the UK. The act underpins many laws and rights. Nor will the European Court of Justice have any jurisdiction in Britain.

This is what the Leave campaign was talking about when they said they wanted to “get rid of red tape.”

He uses the example of the Working Time Directive, which was opposed by the Tories since its inception in the European Parliament. Because of the Tories resistance to the WTD the EU had to force it through as a Health & Safety law. The Tories than took the EU to court over the WTD and lost.

Cavalier is sceptical of the government’s promise that EU employment laws will be kept.

“Well I don’t believe them,” he says.

The Great Repeal Bill will be used to convert EU law in British legislation. Cavalier says the name is a misnomer and should be called the Great Re-enactment Bill and that the number of laws needed to be transferred would fill an “Encyclopaedia Brittanica”.

However there are a number of problems with the government’s approach, he says. Firstly in the Brexit white paper the government has said the laws will be updated and keep pace with the “changing labour market” once they are under UK jurisdiction – they will not keep pace with developments in Europe.

Cavalier says that the trends in the UK labour market mean the government’s wording is cause for concern because of the rapid rise of insecure work, the gig economy, zero-hour contracts and exploitation.

He also points to a section in the white paper that says laws will be “kept, amended or repealed”, meaning that the law can be changed.

Cavalier says he thinks the government’s aim is to be able to say that when Britain leaves the EU in 2019 no employment rights have been taken away. After that date, however, he thinks they will be attacked.

He does not believe the white paper’s statement that the government is dedicated to “maintaining the UKs status as a global leader for working rights.” The laughter coming from the delegates suggest they don’t either.

Cavalier says we must be sceptical and cautious in upcoming months and campaign for EU laws to properly protected and maintained and as a minimum kept up to date with developments in Europe.

He says there is a long route still to travel, but that leaving the EU is profoundly damaging for trade union, worker and equality rights.

‘Very productive’ (09.06)
Good morning and welcome to the second and final day of the Esher conference on the implications of Brexit for EWCs and employment law.

Simon Dubbins is greeting the delegates, saying that yesterday’s discussions were very productive.

On the panel this morning are general secretary Len McCluskey, shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer MP, Thompson’s Solicitors CEO Steve Cavalier and Unite international officer Jonathan Hayward.

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