Brexit, labour rights and migration: what’s really at stake

Professor Simon Deakin, Director, Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, in conversation with Boni Sones, OBE, Policy Associate at the CBR and Executive Producer,

In a new podcast Simon Deakin, the Director of the Centre for Business Research and Professor of Law at the University of Cambridge examines the issue of whether a vote to Brexit from Europe in the UK’s forthcoming Referendum on 23 June would lead to a loss of rights in the workplace.

Deakin argues that while Brexit would have negative implications for workers’ rights, the EU needs to reform its current approach to social policy, which has been too permissive in allowing governments to opt out of labour market rules, and too accommodating of free movement for capital.

He points out that British governments of all political persuasions have watered down workers’ rights provided for by European directives. He points to other European countries which have done more to protect their manufacturing sectors while maintaining workers’ rights, such as Germany, the Nordic systems, France, and the Low Countries. He discusses how the UK has tolerated the shrinking of its industrial base while actively encouraging the growth of a casualised labour market, characterised by growing numbers of insecure jobs masquerading as self-employment, agency work and zero hours contracts.

“In this European core one can see a very different approach to industrial strategy being pursued by governments and that is to maintain stable employment, invest in skills and encourage firms to make capital investments for the long term. Those countries have higher productivity than we do and have weathered the recent economic storm better than we have. In the UK we now have a low-wage, low-productivity economy,“ says Deakin.

Deakin thinks there is an urgent need for reform of the EU: “The true cost of market integration in the absence of social protection has been insecurity and marginalisation for growing numbers of European citizens. Social and Christian democratic parties will cede the issue to the authoritarian Right if they do not address this question head on. They need to grasp the nettle: regulate capital, not just labour, or the European project will fail.”

In this podcast interview with Boni Sones Deakin explains: “In terms of the casualisation of the UK labour market responsibility lies perhaps 80 per cent with the UK and 20% with the EU, so fears about migration and people taking British jobs simply won’t be addressed by Brexit.

“What the Brexit referendum has revealed is a fundamental disenchantment with a part of the working population in the UK, and it is probably true in other countries too, but because of our Referendum it has had a high political profile here. Many parts of the population do not feel that the EU is delivering for them. The promise of the EU originally was to build an open economy but with social protection and the rising tide of economic growth would lift all boats. Plainly that has not happened in Britain and we have been fortunate to have a debate about this because of the Referendum but the solution has to be a Europe-wide one.”

Deakin continues: “If we don’t find a solution to this problem and if social democratic and Christian democratic parties can’t find a solution then it is playing into the hands of the authoritarian right whose interests do not support the maintenance of liberal democracy. Neither do they support the principle of an open economy in the way the founders of the EU envisaged.

“We do need a debate about free movement of labour it has never been unqualified and in particular in the social security field it has never been unconditional. We can have a debate about this in the EU and support the principle of free movement of labour but similarly we can support the principle of an open economy without accepting that it leads to a race to the bottom.”

Deakin concludes by saying the issue of free movement of labour and capital needs to be more widely debated within the EU: “We have to have this debate, but it cannot be a debate for Britain alone. In this integrated globalised World there will have to be transnational regional solutions; transnational at the level of the WTO and the International Labour Organisation and other UN agencies and within our own locality, within Europe through the EU. An actual Brexit would enormously diminish the capacity of our politicians and rule makers to do anything about this problem.”

Deakin explains that there should be no objection to free movement so long as regulations are in place to ensure fairness at work: “We should be in favour of free movement since we as British citizens benefit from it, we also benefit from migration into this country, this assists economic growth but it cannot be economic growth at all costs. I do believe we can find a regulatory solution to the problems of exploitation of the labour force. The issue of the casualization of work in terms of conditions of employment is a critically important issue and while many would say it is a fact of life which we can’t do anything about, I don’t think that is the case at all.

“We have a lot to learn from what other countries have done, but if we don’t find a way to curb this anti-social form of capitalism that has somehow developed over the last twenty years especially in this country then unfortunately the political consequences will be severe. People often say we can’t regulate business because capital is mobile and we must not frighten the horses, however now there is an even bigger threat which is the threat of illiberal anti-democratic political forces taking hold. This is a real threat that has to be addressed.”

In this podcast Deakin also addresses in more detail the issues of job insecurity; regional differences of employment terms; the decline of the steel industry in the UK; the need for state intervention to redress the imbalances in the UK economy; platform technology; the loss of manufacturing industries; free movement of labour and free movement of capital; European court rulings impacting on employees; the posting of workers’ and the resulting exploitation by employers and gang masters; the need for further discussion and regulation within the EU to tackle these pressing problems.

Read Simon Deakin’s article, Brexit labour and migration (PDF)

Listen to the podcast

In this podcast Simon Deakin, Director of the Centre for Business Research and Professor of Law at the University of Cambridge, discusses with Boni Sones the impact on workers’ rights of a vote to Brexit and leave the EU in the forthcoming UK Referendum on 23 June 2016.

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