Theresa May’s claim that a Tory government will use Brexit to improve workers’ rights has been met with derision and disbelief by opposition and trade union leaders.
Speaking from the campaign trail in Swansea, Starmer pointed to the Tories’ record of attacking employment rights and questioned May’s pledge to retain all EU derived employment law through the Great Repeal Bill.
He said: “Here she is, seven years in power, suddenly talking about workers’ rights.
“Hers is the government that introduced fees for employment tribunals so even the rights that are already there can’t be enforced unless you have got the money to go to a tribunal.
“This is the government that hasn’t managed to raise wages or have wages raised for seven years.”
He added: “I don’t think that many of her MPs are going to be able to resist the temptation to water down and get rid of workplace rights, because after all, that is why they were advocating leaving the EU in the first place. So the idea that they are going to better protect rights doesn’t really sit very well.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady also warned that May’s plan to simply transfer current EU rights into UK law was not comprehensive enough.
For a successful Brexit deal that protects both UK and EU workers from a “race to the bottom”, Britain needs to ensure that domestic employment rights keep pace with changes and developments in Europe, O’Grady said.
She told the Guardian: “This is not about sovereignty; this is about saying there will be a level playing field and nobody will fall below this basic standard.
“Now of course, Theresa May has already said that she won’t just protect rights, she will enhance them – so it should cause no problem whatsoever for the Conservative party to sign up to a commitment that British workers will not fall behind rights in other countries.
“We know the EU is developing a new social pillar; there’s going to be new rights to paid parental leave – so they’re going to crack on; can Mrs May match it?”
Despite claiming that her policies are “the greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by a Conservative government in history”, it seems unlikely that May will keep British working rights on a par with those in Europe.
Writing in the Financial Times to launch the manifesto pledges, May showed no sign of pushing against Tory Brexiteers who see EU regulation, including workers’ rights, as a hinderance to free trade.
The Prime Minister said: “We remain committed to preventing pointless red tape and keeping corporation tax low.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said the Conservatives could not be trusted over workers’ rights.
He said: “It is good news that the Prime Minister accepts the importance of the rights we have derived from the EU, but there is no way that working people can rely on the rest of her party feeling the same way.
“Already there are those on her benches itching to scrap basic protections, like the working time directive, which keep workers and the public safe but are decried as needless red tape by many hard right Tories.
“Theresa May’s promises to workers need to be regarded in the same light as her promise not to call another election – that is, not worth the paper they are written on.”