The government has u-turned on a review of workers’ rights associated with the EU-derived Working Time Regulations after it came under pressure from opposition parties and trade unions.
Earlier this month, sources told the Financial Times that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was consulting with a selected group of business leaders on potential changes to working hours.
Under the Working Time Regulations, employers must not force workers to take on more than 48 hours per week, offer them adequate rest breaks, and allow them to accrue holiday pay on hours worked overtime. In the UK, however, these laws have been diluted in such a way that workers can opt-out of them – a common occurrence in jobs associated with long shifts, such as in the hospitality industry.
Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has publicly aired his distaste for any form of limit on the amount of time workers spend on their jobs – even if workers can opt out at any time. In the 2012 book Britannia Unchained, he and his coauthors Priti Patel (now home Secretary), Dominic Raab (now Foreign Secretary) and Liz Truss (now Trade Secretary) described British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world”.
After initially denying rumours of a review, Kwarteng last week came clean about the consultation he was holding, admitting to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee that he was considering which EU workers’ rights he wanted to “keep”.
But after the Labour Party forced a House of Commons vote on the matter on Monday evening, and probing questions were asked in the House of Lords, the government has backtracked.
“So, the review is no longer happening with BEIS,” Kwarteng told Robert Peston on his ITV show last night. “I’ve made it very, very clear to officials in the department that we’re not interested in watering down workers’ rights.”
Kwarteng went on to insist that he could not have been “more clear” that he wants to take Brexit as an opportunity to improve rather than destroy workers’ rights, but in the Commons debate on Monday he faced skepticism over such promises.
“The truth is … that they have been forced to climb down today because of the outcry, but that does not merit a pat on the back,” Ed Miliband, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, told the Commons.
“The very fact that they were considering taking away vital rights, including the 48-hour limit on the working week, from nurses, ambulance drivers, lorry drivers and supermarket delivery drivers speaks volumes … this was not some Whitehall accident; this is what they believe.”