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Professor of Law warns workers rights would be at risk in a post-Brexit workplace

Professor Michael Ford QC

Professor Michael Ford, QC (LLB 1986)

Press release issued: 14 April 2016

Professor Michael Ford QC provides independent legal opinion that warns of the risk to workers' rights if the UK votes to leave the European Union

In a widely publicised legal opinion commissioned by the Trade Union Commission (TUC), Professor Ford identifies the dangers posed to working people and their rights at work by Britain leaving the EU. It explains the extensive employment rights guaranteed by EU law, considers which would be most at risk of being diluted or scrapped after Brexit, and sets out the likely mechanisms for disapplying EU workplace laws in the UK.

Professor Ford's legal opinion says that the process would not be quick or easy, noting “there is no precedent for the kind of radical overhaul of laws which would potentially flow from Brexit”. And he says that simply repealing the European Communities Act 1972, as some Brexit supporters appear to advocate, is an “almost unimaginable” course of action, which would lead to “legal and commercial chaos”.

More likely is a lengthy transition in which the government could pick and choose which EU rights to dilute or scrap. This would create long-term uncertainty and confusion for both employers and workers, and it could result in workers losing many hard-won rights at work.

Michael Ford's legal opinion states: “All the social rights in employment currently required by EU law would be potentially vulnerable”. He lists those rights that he believes are most at risk post-Brexit from a government with a deregulatory agenda. They include;

  • rights to properly-paid holidays
  • protections for agency workers
  • health and safety protections
  • protections from some forms of employer discrimination – such as compensation rates, and protections for pregnant workers and older workers.

The legal opinion also notes that, regardless of whether the UK government were to choose to retain any EU-guaranteed worker protections, workers would no longer be able to seek redress from the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The ECJ’s rulings make sure all workers can benefit from EU-guaranteed workers’ rights. A notable ECJ ruling in 1982 extended equal pay rules to include equal pay for work of equal value, benefiting millions of women workers.

Professor Ford notes that if the government opposes a decision of a domestic court, it can change the law, adding: “I very much doubt, for example, that the government would have stood by had the domestic courts interpreted equal pay laws in the way the ECJ has done.”

Professor Ford further comments that "It is easy to contemplate a complete reversal of the gradual increase in social regulation protecting workers which has taken place since the 1960s".

Commenting on Michael Ford’s independent legal opinion, the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“Voting to leave the EU is a big risk for everyone who works for a living. Brexit would mean working people are haunted by years of uncertainty, as rights like paid holiday, parental leave and equal treatment for part-timers and contract workers could be stripped away over time. The EU guarantees these rights, but generations of trade unionists fought for them. If we lose them because of Brexit, it could take generations to get them back again.

“The biggest cheerleaders for Brexit think that your protections at work are just red tape to be binned. Bad bosses will be rubbing their hands with glee if Brexit gives them the chance to cut workers’ hard-won protections.”

* Read Michael Ford QC's legal opinion here

* TUC https://www.tuc.org.uk/