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Labour Standards

When the UK leaves the EU on 31st January labour standards won’t immediately change – the terms of the withdrawal deal mean that the UK will continue to abide by EU rules.  However depending on if/what type of deal is struck between the UK and EU for the future relationship we could see labour standards changing.  Workers’ rights are a ‘reserved’ matter, i.e. they are not devolved to the Scottish Parliament, thus what is decided at Westminster will impact Scottish workers.

What’s currently mandated by the EU?


  • Labour law such as the Working Time Directive – this limits the number of hours people can work (thought it is possible to opt out of the WTD - unless you’re a lorry driver) and rules about paid holidays, sick leave, maternity arrangements.
  • Health & safety at work.
  • Equal opportunities for women and men – includes features such as equal treatment at work, maternity and paternity leave etc.
  • Protection against discrimination based on sex, race, religion, age, disability and sexual orientation.
  • Working conditions.

The standards set by the EU are the minimum standards and individual countries can go above and beyond if desired.  Across the EU there is substantial variation in many areas – for instance the EU specifies a minimum 14 weeks statutory maternity whilst the UK goes beyond this providing up to 52 weeks.

What would be mandated by the WTO?

The WTO does not in fact have jurisdiction over labour standards.  Whilst there is a set of ‘core’ standards that could be said to set out its position this is very different from being a set of rules.  The core standards comprise:

  • Freedom of association (i.e. workers are able to join trade unions)
  • No forced labour (including prison labour and slavery)
  • Child labour – minimum working age and certain working conditions.
  • No discrimination at work (including gender discrimination).

Critics of the WTO approach argue that there is a ‘race to the bottom’ where in order to achieve competitive advantage countries are encouraged to reduce standards and it has been a subject of intense debate.

In the UK could reduce standards significantly on leaving the EU and still compare favourably with some western countries.  For instance in the USA there isn’t any legislation specifying a minimum annual leave and 10 days is considered to be the minimum in practice.  Nor is there a minimum paid maternity leave stipulated and this is highly variable depending on the state and type of employer.

It is possible that the conditions of a future trade agreement with the EU would include rules around workers’ rights.  The EU would want to do this to maintain a level playing field – they would not want to see the UK gaining a competitive advantage because of giving workers a poorer deal.  The European Commission have already stated in 2018 that because of the geographic proximity and existing close links with the EU the ‘level playing field’ commitments should be even stronger than would ordinarily be required.

More will become known when the government publishes its Employment Bill which will set out how it sees future workers’ rights, however if workers’ rights form a key part of the trade deal with the EU it’ll only be once this is concluded that we will see exactly what working in the UK will look like in future.

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