The workers’ protections set to be thrown on the Brexit bonfire

With its Retained EU Law Bill, the government intends to rip workers’ protections out of the UK law books. Find out what this means, and what you can do to stop it

Women in Glasgow striking for equal pay

Many core workplace protections – like holiday pay, maternity pay and equal pay for women and men – come from the European Union. For decades, EU laws have ensured decent working standards in the UK, shielding workers from exploitation and discrimination.

In its quest to complete Brexit, the government intends to rip these protections out of the UK law books entirely. The Retained EU Law Bill, described as a “bonfire of workers’ rights”, was introduced by Jacob Rees-Mogg on behalf of the ill-fated Truss government. It sets a time bomb beneath vital workplace regulations, alongside many other EU-derived laws.

The bill returns to the House of Commons on 18 January, for its report stage. If it continues unchecked, by 31 December this year the UK could lose over 4,000 pieces of EU legislation in one fell swoop.

UNISON members and the union’s legal team are horrified at what the removal of these laws, and the principles of EU law, will mean for workers. Many legal improvements to workers’ rights in the UK, including UNISON’s recent Supreme Court victory that won new holiday rights for part-time workers, are reliant on the courts’ interpretations of EU law, and could be lost.

Without the shield of EU law, workers in the UK will be exposed to an Americanised, hire-and-fire culture that makes work more insecure and dangerous. The government’s decision to deliberately smash up decades of settled legal principles and case law will leave UK workers in an employment law wasteland.

Here are just five examples of the many workers’ protections that will disappear within a year, unless the government actively chooses to keep them.

1. Working Time Regulations 1998

Royal courts of justice






The EU Working Time Directive legally enforces daily and weekly rest breaks for workers, as well as statutory paid annual leave. In July 2022, UNISON supported a landmark legal victory that guarantees that all workers in the UK receive the same minimum level of paid annual leave, regardless of how many weeks they work in a year.

The case was brought by music teacher Lesley Brazel, who only worked during term time. Her employer argued that her leave should be pro-rated based on how many weeks she worked a year. With UNISON leading the arguments, the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court found in Ms Brazel’s favour, using the EU Working Time Directive.

Now, all workers are entitled to the same legal minimum of 5.6 weeks (28 days for a full-time worker), even if there are months during the year when they don’t work. This is a monumental legal victory for all workers including term-time, seasonal and bank workers, as well as those on zero hours contracts.

If the UK no longer applies the EU Working Time Directive, everyone could see their annual leave entitlements disappear, leaving only the basic statutory minimum of eight bank holidays. UNISON member Julia Hambrey says: “Having annual leave, rest breaks and limits to working time allow me, a 61-year-old NHS worker, to keep working. I will retire early if they change our hard-earned working rights”.

Another UNISON member, Leah Smith, shared how important these rights are to her: “I could not do my very stressful job in children’s social care without paid annual leave. I would burn out. This service is pressured enough without removal of rest breaks, paid annual leave and limits to the working hours. We already give so many hours of our free time just to be able to complete our jobs”.

2. Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000

Six female school workers in classroom






It’s thanks to the EU that people who work part-time are not treated differently to full-time workers. And when employers do treat part-time workers less favourably, it’s EU law that holds them accountable.

UNISON relied on the UK part-time worker regulations, which implement an EU Directive, to win a legal payout for 5,000 low-paid women in schools and nurseries in Greenwich (pictured). UNISON argued that cleaners, teaching assistants, catering workers and other school staff employed by the council had been unlawfully treated less favourably than colleagues owing to their part-time status.

Following this case, UNISON has pursued hundreds of other claims and settled almost £100m in back payments to term-time workers. Without the legal requirement of these regulations, it is unlikely that employers would agree to recognise the rights of part-time workers.

Three in four part-time workers are women, which means that any dismantling of part-time worker protections is a direct rollback on women’s rights.

UNISON member Victoria Elves says: “My mum was a school meals supervisor. She was successful in a compensation claim that addressed unequal pay that was made possible by EU protections. Mum, a very hardworking and honest woman, had been taken advantage of.”

3. The Maternity and Parental Leave etc Regulations 1999







The right to paid maternity, paternity and parental leave comes from EU law, ensuring that anyone who takes paid maternity, paternity or parental leave does not suffer discrimination or dismissal. These regulations also ensure that pregnant people, after returning from maternity leave, have the right to return to the same job they had before taking leave.

UNISON member Beverley Peck shares her experience of maternity-based discrimination prior to this law coming into place: “After returning from maternity leave, I was initially demoted as I could only work part-time and was told that a ward sister’s post was not available as a part-time job, even though I had the knowledge and experience.”

Family-friendly regulations like parental leave have been a keystone for women’s rights in the UK, as they ensure that childcare is not solely a “women’s issue” alone. UNISON member Pauline McSorley, says: “I had my child in 1996 before parental leave was established. I felt very much alone with the responsibility. My husband would have benefited from time to get used to parenthood.”

UNISON member Simon Booth adds: “I had paternity leave with both of our children. For me that meant forging a crucial bond from an early age and a chance to share some of the burden with my partner. This is a key bedrock in my opinion to building family values, which all parties claim is important.”

Last year, the Supreme Court relied on EU legislation to pass a landmark judgment in favour of Uber drivers, declaring them workers under the eyes of employment law. The court ruled that they were entitled to paid maternity and paternity leave, annual leave, statutory sick pay and the minimum wage. Without this in place, it’s unclear whether the UK courts would have passed this judgment, which has not only affected Uber drivers but thousands of others working in precarious ‘gig economy’ jobs.

4. Article 157 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

Women in Glasgow striking for equal pay






This crucial piece of EU law gives women the right to demand equal pay with men for work of equal value, and allows them to compare themselves with men working in other establishments.

This law was fundamental to the £12m equal pay victory UNISON won on behalf of low-paid women working in classrooms and nurseries in Scotland, who challenged their council employer over the fact that only men received bonuses. The court held that women could compare themselves with groundsmen, refuse collectors and drivers employed by the council, even though they did not work at the same ‘establishment’.

One UNISON member says: “Without a level of transparency and the ability to challenge pay, the efforts to move towards equal pay between the sexes will take a huge step backwards. ‘Jobs for the boys’ needs to be completely smashed to smithereens with people being rewarded for their competences, aptitude and success.” 

This legal principle also allowed for UNISON’s historic £548m equal pay victory in Glasgow in 2019, which covered settlements for thousands of school staff, nursery workers, caterers and cleaners (pictured).

5. Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment Regulations) 2006

When public services become privatised, TUPE rights are vital for preserving workers’ rights. TUPE rights guarantee that, for example, if a service is outsourced to a private company, all people employed by that service will keep their jobs under their existing terms and conditions. TUPE also gives workers the right to be informed and consulted about a transfer and its impact.

If TUPE rights are removed, workers whose service gets taken over by a new organisation could have their salaries cut, their sick and holiday pay cut, their leave cut, and they will no longer have the right to be informed about the transfer.

The EU regulations on TUPE formed the backbone of UNISON’s landmark case that won hundreds of thousands in compensation for council workers in Barnet. During negotiations on a transfer, the council had failed to share information with UNISON on how many agency workers were used by the council. The union had asked for the information in order to protect council workers, as part of a wider consultation over redundancies and the transfer of staff.

The tribunal found that the council had not complied with its obligations under the TUPE regulations, resulting in financial compensation to over 150 Barnet Council workers.

TUPE regulations impose tangible obligations on employers and lead to real consequences if they are not complied with. Removing them leaves workers even more vulnerable to the consequences of outsourcing.

UNISON member Hazel Thomas-May says: “Please don’t be responsible for removing such important and essential rights. As a local authority employee, who believes in public service, my colleagues and I have suffered enough over recent years with pay freezes, below inflation pay rises and the more recent challenge of the cost of living crisis.  Please protect us, don’t make our working lives worse.”

Help stop the Brexit bonfire of workers’ protections

These are just five of the many workplace protections that will be axed by the Retained EU Law Bill. On top of this, the bill will also cut the UK off from EU legal principles in their entirety, which means that decades of legal judgments used to help UK courts interpret workers’ rights will disappear at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 2023 – with absolutely nothing to replace them.

UNISON believes the Retained EU Law Bill places ideology above the lived, practical needs of workers, and the union is leading the fightback to defeat it. As soon as the bill was announced, UNISON declared it to be an ‘attack on working women’, and hundreds of members have shared their experiences and opinions on how important these workplace rights are.

UNISON’s head of legal services Shantha David has given expert oral evidence to Parliament and general secretary Christina McAnea has written to prime minister Rishi Sunak to ask that the deadline for the bill be extended from 2023 to 2033 to allow for proper scrutiny, and for a guarantee that workers’ protections will not be removed from UK law books.

UNISON is not alone in denouncing this bill. The government’s own regulatory policy committee has already declared the Retained EU Law Bill as “not fit for purpose” and even the government lawyer who designed the concept of retained EU law has called the 2023 deadline unrealistic.

To help play your part in preventing this Brexit bonfire of workers’ protections, write to your MP today using this template, asking them to raise concerns about the Retained EU Law Bill. The more critical voices around the bill, the more likely we can delay and ultimately defeat it.

5 thoughts on “The workers’ protections set to be thrown on the Brexit bonfire

  1. Mark Higgins says:

    As a workplace steward, part-time and term-time worker in a school, I will find it very hard to defend members- myself included- from unfair practices that may arise from an employer cutting corners. In schools we’re already beset with unfilled job vacancies and increasing workloads. This will definitely not help.

  2. Natalie Baldwin says:

    This is yet another attack on worker’s rights from the Tory government and it especially affects hundreds of thousands of women in part time public sector work. This stripping away of crucial, hard fought legislation was one of the reasons that people such as Jacob Rees- Mogg fought so hard for Brexit. There are enough problems to deal with in the Public Sector such as underfunding, cut backs, unfilled vacancies and increased workloads. This stripping of workers rights needs to be stopped.

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