When it comes to the Brexit debate, employment law isn’t really that big a deal. But as Sarah O’Connor says, both sides are trying to make it into one:
Some in favour of Britain leaving the EU, such as Patrick Minford, economics professor at Cardiff University’s business school, say the UK needs to reset its relationship with the EU to “jettison excessive protection and over-regulation, notably in the labour market”. Trade unionists who want to stay in the EU, such as Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, warn that “working people have a huge stake in the referendum because workers’ rights are on the line”. Both these claims give the impression that UK employment law would change significantly in the event of Brexit.
For most employers, though, it’s not that important and the bits they are most worried about have nothing to do with the EU:
The truth is that most employers are not angling for these EU-related rights to be repealed. When I talk to companies, they usually complain about four employment issues: the new higher minimum wage for people aged 25 and over; the “apprenticeship levy”, a payroll tax for large companies; restrictions on skilled migrant workers and the requirement for large companies to publish their gender pay gaps. None of those has been forced on the UK by the EU; all are policies that have been dreamt up by the current Conservative government.
For years, politicos, journalists and policy wonks have made a lot more fuss about regulation than business people. There is no great clamour from employers to change employment law. When the government came up with various hare-brained schemes during the last parliament, the reaction of business leaders was indifference. The Beecroft proposals were treated with derision by lawyers and employers and the shares for rights scheme was almost completely ignored. If the economy was really groaning under the weight of employment protection law, surely such measures would have been greeted by employers with effusive delight, instead of a collective shrug.
Employment law can be irritating and some claims are vexatious but the risks of being taken for a large amount of money are fairly remote. Stories of people being bankrupted by employment tribunal cases are usually put about by hysterical columnists or people trying to sell indemnity insurance. Thanks to the introduction of fees, you are less likely to be taken to tribunal now than you were five years ago and, even if you do lose a case the amount you get stung for will probably be less than £10,000. The vast majority of managers go through their entire careers without ever going anywhere near an employment tribunal.
Furthermore, as Richard Dustan says, a lot of employment law is quite popular:
[I]t would be a bold (or simply daft) Tory government that decided to cut the hardly over-generous statutory entitlement to paid holiday – just four weeks plus bank holidays – or to blatantly roll-back the scope of anti-discrimination law, or to slash (paper) maternity rights. These rights are now well-entrenched and, in most cases, extremely popular. So, even someone as tactically inept as George Osborne would surely see that “Vote Tory, get less holiday” is not a great campaign slogan.
Or, as Sarah says:
It is hard to imagine any government going into the 2020 election with “bring back sexism in the workplace” or “let’s have fewer paid holidays” on their leaflets.
Even after Brexit, the UK would not be the de-regulated heaven or hell that some people on both sides like to claim. It might raise interesting issues at what Darren calls the geeky margins (and he’d know) but the idea that it would be an opportunity to dismantle all the UK’s domestic employment legislation is fanciful.
When it comes to employment protection, the UK is already one of the least regulated countries in the developed world. In some countries, where regulation is very onerous, relaxing it might help to boost the economy. If the UK was ever anywhere near that point it is long past it now. Employment protection laws are now so light that even removing them completely would make very little difference to this country’s competitiveness. It might even make it worse.
Employment law isn’t a Brexit issue because it simply isn’t an issue. Most employers are not that worried about it and its economic impact is fairly small. As red herrings go, they don’t come much redder than this.