After failing miserably on Monday to reassure millions of workers that their basic rights at work won’t be scrapped, Theresa May has another opportunity when she stands up at the last PMQs of the year later today (20 December).
She would not explicitly rule out scrapping the working time directive, while exerting her authority over the fantasies of hard right cabinet ministers who want to make Britain a less safe, more miserable place to work.
Had she done so, she would have shown that she was in tune with the British public too, as Left Foot Forward’s exclusive poll shows.
Once again we have proof that people may have voted to be out of the EU; they did not vote to be poorer or less safe at work.
Nearly three quarters of people surveyed believe that EU regulations on workers’ rights, which include the working time directive, should be enshrined into UK law. Just four per cent think these regulations and protections should be weakened. This shows clearly there’s no appetite for the Brexit fantasy land of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove of diminished rights at work, of people working longer for less.
People aren’t stupid. They do not associate the Tories with fairness at work, and will not believe a cabinet of millionaires can understand the struggles of working life.
However, as much as Mrs May wants to portray her party as on the side of working people, she leads the party that ushered in the needless, divisive Trade Union Act. Her party’s economic policies have also caused the biggest downwards spiral in wages, matched on the other side of the balance sheet by the sharp rise in cost of living. The UK is alone among major western economies in seeing living standards decline.
So whatever the rabid right-wing tabloids claim, fewer rights will not equal a rise in pay. Scrapping the working time directive would see over seven million losing rights to paid holidays – 4.7 million of them women – and many eking out a living in insecure precarious work. Workers could also lose the right to lunch and rest breaks, and night workers could lose some health and safety protections.
In key sectors of the economy such as construction, heavy industry and transport, to name just few, working lives and the lives of the public would become less safe. With safety-critical rest breaks and regulations governing the maximum amount of days worked in a row at work consigned to dustbin, tired and stressed workers are more prone to accidents.
But there is another question Mrs May must put to those cabinet members salivating for the scrapping of the working time directive; how do they think that the UK can maintain a strong trading relationship with Europe while revving up for a race to the bottom?
As Michel Barnier warns, why would the EU give the UK a trade deal and access to a major global market that underpins millions of jobs if we are a country of poor protections, environmental hazards and chlorinated chicken?
If her cabinet does not share the vision of the high skilled, decent work economy that we’re routinely promised by the governing party, but instead a post-Brexit Britain that will make its way in the world by undercutting, stripping away protections and working its people until they drop, then come clean with the voters.
This is not a vision for progress but it is emerging as the preferred choice of elements of a riven Tory party which itself stands as the main obstacle to Britain securing a Brexit that puts jobs and people first.
The PM’s promise that our rights would not diverge from those of our brothers and sisters in the EU is only weeks old, yet already it is under attack not from business but by a handful of Brexit buccaneers on her benches.
When Mrs May gets to her feet for the last questions of this year, she must spell out that 2018 will not be another year in which this country’s working people pay dearly for her party’s ideology.
Len McCluskey is Unite general secretary
This article was first published on the Left Foot Forward website