The measures under consultation include relaxation of the Working Time Directive (WTD), which sets down the 48-hour working week, overtime pay and rest breaks.
Shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, accused the government of trying to take a “wrecking ball” to hard-won workers’ rights. Kawrteng denied Miliband’s remarks, instead stated that he wanted to “protect and improve” labour law.
The minister stated to business leaders that in the aftermath of the Brexit deal, the UK now has the option of improving upon legislation originating from EU law. Difficulties encountered during time within the EU could now be rectified. “The idea that we are trying to whittle down standards, that’s not at all plausible or true”, he affirmed, addressing concerns from MPs.
Kwarteng tweeted on 14 January 2021, “We are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights. The UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world – going further than the EU in many areas. We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them.”
Kwarteng explained to MPs how several EU countries had also opted out of the WTD, and even following that the UK is “above the average European standard and I think we can be a high-level, high-employment economy, a very successful economy, and that is what we should aim for.”
Miliband questioned the government’s priorities and warned that relaxing the 48-hour working week would harm workers in key sectors, including those working for the NHS, transport and airlines from working excessive hours.
James Reed, president and chairman of the UK’s largest recruitment firm ‘Reed’ urged the government to turn its attention to unemployment and improving conditions for lower-paid workers. He told the BBC Today that as unemployment continues to rise the government should prioritise reforming ‘the apprenticeship levy, which is clearly failing…and also National Insurance on jobs. It’s a tax on jobs – how can that be improved? Especially to help the low-paid back into work.”
Under the post-Brexit deal with the EU, the UK agreed to conditions that maintain fair competition, or a level playing field, between two sides. Relaxing the WTD runs the risks relations with the EU.
Joao Vale de Almeida, the EU’s ambassador to the UK warned on that if the government went too far with deregulation then Brussels could retaliate.
“It will be for us to judge the extent to which it violates this principle of ‘level playing field’ and if that is the case there are mechanisms in the treaty, in the agreement, that allows us to discuss and eventually to come to an understanding – if no understanding there are retaliation measures that can be applied on both sides,” said Vale de Almeida.