Still much to fight for as Brexit slowly becomes a reality

Four years after Article 50, UNISON policy officer Allison Roche says the union is working hard to keep the government honest over the UK’s separation from Europe

Four years ago today, on 29 March 2017, then prime minister Theresa May formally triggered Article 50 and the UK’s long, torturous exit from the European Union.

It wasn’t until 1 January this year that the UK finally left the EU single market and customs union. A few weeks earlier, the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) was signed, determining the new trading relationship. After the long wait, the result was rather thin, with lots of the UK economy not covered.

As far as UNISON is concerned, the deal doesn’t live up to the promises that were made by Boris Johnson and his government.

Services, which make up 80% of the UK GDP, were not included; protections to keep our existing workers’ rights and environmental standards were not strong enough; the Northern Ireland Protocol still left uncertainties and anxieties over a hard border and the Good Friday Agreement; many EU citizens in the UK were still not aware they had to register for a new ‘settled status’; and our data privacy protections under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation appeared to be at risk.

We witnessed the chaos at the ports of constant lorry queues and delays. Whilst it is true that the trade agreement was only published five days before it came into effect, the government still had over a year in the transition period to put in place a new system.

But Whitehall never really made clear the trade-offs involved in the Brexit deal, and this undermined preparations. Firms are still dealing with the new costs and delays when trading with the EU, while government has yet finalised its plans to introduce new IT systems, build new infrastructure and take on new functions – all while grappling with the devastating effects of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has delayed some of the most obvious impacts of the Brexit deal – at least until lockdowns lift and borders re-open. Exports to the EU were down 40% between December 2020 and January 2021. There is concern that ministers dismissing the initial disruption as “teething problems” are underplaying the fact that many firms are struggling to adapt to the new way in which they must do business with the EU.

And there are still further changes to come. The government has now decided to delay some Brexit changes, including the introduction of full border checks, and to phase in new regulations on chemical and product standards. We will not know the full impact of how these new rules will increase the cost of goods and service for working people until post COVID.

After the chaos, now what? 

In the short-term, then, some of the economic impacts of Brexit are already here, with customs and border disruption, a perceptive increase in supermarket prices, delays in some food and medicine deliveries and uncertainty in Northern Ireland ports.

In the longer term, the UK is likely to diverge from the EU on such things as labour, environment, privacy, consumer and product standards and a host of other regulations.

And as the pandemic has played havoc with the settled status scheme, the fate of thousands of EU citizens – UNISON members among them – remains in the balance.

So although leaving the EU is now effectively over, for the UK some of the real, post-Brexit battles are just beginning. UNISON held the government accountable throughout the negotiations and we will now hold them accountable on their promise that no-one will be worse off.

Protecting public services and our members’ workplace and equality rights is still our union’s priority in any new, post-Brexit UK legislation.

In one way or another the months ahead are going to be crucial for every single member of the union – with potential effects on how you live, work and support your families. But UNISON will be with you, every step of the way.

Here are some of the key areas of concern, and what UNISON is doing about them:

Workers’ rights

The government has delayed its new employment bill, but UNISON has concerns that without stronger protections the legislation could chip away at some of our members’ rights, among them:

  • collective consultation rights in the workplace
  • TUPE
  • paid annual leave
  • the 48-hour limit on the working week
  • holiday pay
  • atypical workers’ rights, eg agency workers’ rights.

Protections of UK workers’ rights will now rely on UK inspection and enforcement processes. UNISON will campaign for all labour codes to be mandatory and not voluntary. It will also demand that there are legal guarantees in any new UK labour enforcement, remedies and sanctions, so that employers are deterred from any violations of labour and trade union rights.

European Court of Justice

The UK has lost access to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), with the government now allowing existing ECJ rulings and case law to be challenged in the UK courts. This could enable the unpicking of case laws that are currently protecting our EU-based rights and standards.

Employment tribunals

In the absence of ECJ case law, both employment tribunals and judicial reviews may be made more difficult – making it harder for UNISON to represent and defend its members’ rights.

The union is campaigning to ensure that workers’ voices can be represented fairly.


Since Brexit, the UK government has begun to negotiate new free trade agreements and has not once excluded UK public services from those talks.

UNISON continues to campaign for the removal of public services, and particularly health services, from all trade deals. This would mean that UK public services would not be open to global markets and financial investment.

Public procurement

The government has consulted on its proposals to reform the UK public procurement regime, with new rules expected to be put into a bill by the end of 2021.

UNISON’s public procurement campaign aims to prevent the widening privatisation of UK public services both domestically and in any trade deals. The union insists that the bill must:

  • include the right for all contracting authorities to maintain services in-house, with a duty to appraise insourcing as a preferable option to out-sourcing
  • include references to workers’ rights, good employment practices, collective bargaining and trade union recognition
  • include mandatory requirements to rule out price-only contract awards, to prevent the ‘race to the bottom’
  • include mandatory requirements for contracts to be awarded on a price-quality ratio, so that contracting authorities can use public procurement to address economic and social inequalities locally, regionally and nationally
  • set out clearly the devolved common framework of public procurement for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England
  • promote a social partnership for public procurement, in which workers’ voices are core to public service delivery
  • remove the proposed emergency clauses that allow contracts to be awarded without a tender process in the event of a ‘crisis’.


Settled Status  

30 June 2021: that’s the deadline for EU citizens to apply for settled status, enabling them to secure their immigration status and right to live and work in the UK.

UNISON is continuing to campaign for the government to extend that deadline.

However, nothing can be taken for granted. Therefore the union is urging every member who is an EU, EEA or Swiss citizen to make sure they have applied for settled status before 30 June.

Anyone whose legal right to be in the UK depends on another EU/EEA/Swiss citizen also needs to apply, by the same deadline.

Recent research has shown that members working in the fragmented and privatised social care sector may be particularly unaware of what the new immigration rules mean for them. UNISON hopes all its members will spread the word to colleagues, friends and neighbours who may not realise they are affected by Brexit.

Settled Status

The union is offering free immigration advice through the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). If you would like to access this, please call UNISON Direct at 0800 0 857 857.

UNISON’s campaign to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK

Apply for settled status

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