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Brexit and Employment Rights

Feb 3, 2021

Author: Anthony Purvis

Ever since the country voted to leave the EU in 2016, an evergreen topic of debate for those in the HR and employment law world has been whether or not Brexit will mean substantial changes to employment rights.  Last week the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, explained that “we’re not interested in watering down workers’ rights”.  His statement appeared to come as something of u-turn after he had confirmed only days earlier that there would be a review into how EU employment rights could be changed after Brexit.
Is this change in approach surprising?  Well not particularly, in my view.  In the last few years most commentators appear to have reached a consensus that a widespread change to employment law is unlikely.  A fair amount of the protections enjoyed by workers in the UK are in place because of the EU, or at least partly so.  But most of them are part of the day to day fabric of working life and have been for years or decades.  Accordingly, any government should find it very difficult to justify rowing back on them, particular during a pandemic, and last week’s decision to abandon a mere review seems to show just how strongly opinion can form in these circumstances. 
Some reports have suggested that the proposals under consideration would have been to end the maximum 48-hour working week, change rules around breaks at work and to change how holiday pay should be calculated.  Without seeing any of the details of these proposals, it could be that they would have been only minor changes aimed at cutting so-called “red tape” for businesses, which is a policy aim often espoused by Conservative governments.  Nevertheless, it’s rare for a government not to tinker with employment law in some way (and there hasn’t been much from this government, partly due to the more pressing issues of Brexit and coronavirus, I believe) so there may well be changes in due course, which might not have been possible had our EU membership continued.