Events have certainly moved at a rapid pace since the letter notifying the European Commission that the UK is invoking its right under Article 50 to withdraw from the European Union, signed by our Prime Minister, was hand delivered to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council on 29 March.

Ironically, the letter was taken via Eurostar and the channel tunnel, a mighty symbol of Britain’s fundamental ties with Europe, and a joint venture built by the British and French, opened by HM Queen and President Mitterand.  Given the hostilities that are likely to ensue, as one commentator remarked, perhaps it would have been more appropriate to send it by gun-boat.

Huge issues remain unclear, as the country steps off the cliff – the fate of the millions of EU citizens working in the UK and UK citizens working in the EU, how to square the circle of reducing immigration and ensuring sufficient staff in hospitality, agriculture, the NHS and major scientific and academic professions; how our major companies cope as the single market closes.

The Election may shed some light on these and other key issues, but if the Prime Minister’s underlying aim is to give herself a massive mandate through a huge increase in the Tory vote and the number of Tory MPs in order to strengthen her freedom of manoeuvre, we may still be waiting for answers on 9 June: hard, soft or somewhere –in-between Brexit, and over what time scale?

Triggering Article 50 was followed in close order by the publication of the White Paper on how the government intends to transpose all the acquis of accumulated European law into UK law.  And herein lies the great danger for workplace rights. For the government’s intention is to use the so-called Henry 8th powers,  to change primary legislation - the Repeal Act once it is passed by Parliament -  using secondary legislation (orders through parliament without scrutiny). That means that rights acquired through Europe – while they will be automatically transposed into UK law through the misleadingly named Great Repeal Bill - will then be subject to amendment or abolition through ministerial fiat.

Given that the real, underlying target of many of the champions of Brexit has always been the directives which have given working people extensive rights, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think that it will not be laws on bendy bananas the Conservative hard-liners have in their sights.

Remember, the EU has played a fundamental role in extending and expanding rights at work in the UK. Among the key benefits delivered by EU Directives:

  • Women’s rights, with a European Court of Justice judgment toughening up pre-existing UK law on equal pay.
  • Strengthened maternity leave and pay and protection from dismissal for pregnant workers.
  • Protection from discrimination on the grounds of age, sexual orientation, religion and belief.
  • Rights to paid holidays for all employees.
  • Right to a maximum working week of 48 hours averaged over 17 weeks (although the UK retains an opt out from this provision).
  • Part-time, fixed-term and agency workers entitled to equal treatment, on issues such as pay, leave and working conditions.
  • Strengthened rights for collective voice at work through the right to European Works Councils in multinationals.
  • The statutory right for employees to be informed and consulted on a range of key issues relating to the business, to their employment and to restructuring under the 2002 information and consultation directive.
  • Protection for employees whose employer’s business is being sold;  under the 1982 Transfer of Undertakings Regulations (TUPE) employees must be consulted about the transfer, and their employment and terms and conditions are protected to a certain extent.
  • Through the Collective Redundancies Directive, employers are also required to consult with recognised trade unions on collective redundancies.
  • Extending and enshrining health and safety regulations in the UK including regulations on asbestos and to protect whistle blowers who highlight health and safety issues from being dismissed.

Our Prime Minister has repeatedly gone on record as saying that she has no desire for any diminution of workplace rights; indeed the Corporate Governance Green Paper raised the possibility of extending rights to ensure that employees’ voices are heard at work. And she has acknowledged the potentially damaging effects of an unrestricted growth of the gig economy, setting up the Taylor Review.

Unfortunately, other top voices in the government are not singing from the same hymn sheet.  Liam Fox MP, Secretary of State for International Trade made his intentions very clear to the Financial Times: ‘To restore Britain’s competitiveness we must begin by deregulating the labour market.  Political objections must be overcome. It is too difficult to hire and fire and too expensive to take on new employees. ‘ And this despite incontrovertible evidence that the UK labour market remains one of the most lightly regulated among our economic competitors – and the fact that having a regulated labour market does not seem to have done the German economy a great deal of harm.

As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has said: ‘the Great Repeal Bill is the PM’s chance to make good on her promise to fully protect and maintain all workers’ rights that come from the EU.’

This battle over the shape of Britain post-Brexit – an offshore, deregulated tax haven, trying to force other advanced economies into a race to the bottom, or a country that responds to the concerns of those who feel left behind by improving their access to skills and their opportunities to work in a high skill, high productivity economy – is the defining issue of our time and will impact directly on the lives of every UK citizen - leavers and remainers alike.