Should workers fear major changes to their workplace rights and benefits post-Brexit?

Working hours, sickness benefits and pay are detailed and contractually binding

The initial shock tremors of Britain’s referendum vote to leave the European Union have died down and many workers are beginning to consider what might happen once the much-touted Article 50 is triggered and the country begins the process of extricating itself.

Dating back to 1997, the European Employment Strategy (EES) established a set of agreed targets for employment policy amongst member states to set minimum standards within the workplace. Will everything suddenly change once Britain ceases to be a member of the EU and should employers and employees be worried about the future?

The immediate future

The first thing to remember is that it will take a while for the UK to completely exit the EU. In the time it takes for an exit plan to be put together, approved and then implemented, it is unlikely that much will change.

One of the reasons for this is that Britain will still be bound by the regulations and rules of the EU until the exit is finalised. Although there are some areas where small changes can be made, it is not anticipated that anything will occur that will be of any great significance. In some cases, such as holiday entitlement, UK law is actually more generous than the EU directives; therefore, it would be surprising if Brexit triggered any iterations.

Should employees be worried about post-exit changes?

Every individual in formal employment in the UK will have some sort of contract of employment laying out what the employer expects from the worker and what the staff member can expect in return. Areas such as holiday entitlement are obviously covered in these contracts; in addition, areas such as working hours, sickness benefits and pay are detailed and contractually binding.

For an employer to make any changes to the employee’s rights and benefits, there would have to be agreement by both parties to the contract. Under UK law, one party to a binding contract cannot unilaterally change the terms of the said contract.

What could change?

Although it is unlikely that major changes will occur to affect the rights of the British workforce, this is not to say that there will be no changes at all for employees in post-Brexit Britain. It is most likely that these will be in the form of slight amendments and tweaks, such as in the way certain regulations are interpreted. We may see the UK government seeking to amend some sections of current UK regulations that have been unpopular, such as annual leave for temps, agency worker regulations and perhaps the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 (TUPE).

The bottom line is that the government will be working towards maintaining close trade ties with the EU even after the country has left. For this reason, it will be very unlikely to risk repealing or substantially changing too many of the EU’s basic employment regulations for fear of jeopardising what will be a very important relationship.

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