Brexit: taking back control of the workers

By Bernadette Meaden
August 23, 2020

Earlier this month Nigel Farage visited a hotel in Witham to ‘expose’ the fact that it was providing accommodation for a group of 40 asylum seekers – men, women, and children.

Mr Farage’s video of his visit went viral on social media, provoking outrage from people who ranged from outright racists to those who, struggling to survive themselves, have tragically been persuaded that the UK can either feed and house ‘our own people’ adequately, or help a small number of refugees, but can’t afford to do both.

The resultant backlash (and political embarrassment for Priti Patel, because the hotel was in her constituency), meant that the asylum seekers were relocated. The hotel owner, who had hoped the contract with the Home Office would help his business survive the pandemic, lamented their departure in both human and financial terms.  "We treated them as guests of the hotel, we treated them as human beings…They were crying, the asylum seekers and the staff because they were losing them and possibly their jobs.” His opinion of Nigel Farage’s motivation was clear and unambiguous "Nigel Farage couldn't care less about them losing their jobs. He is only interested in having a dig at Priti Patel.” 

This tawdry episode seems an apt metaphor for Brexit. Fear, resentment and hostility whipped up and weaponised for political ends, by privileged political insiders, who style themselves as anti-establishment men of the people, but have little or no genuine concern for the ‘ordinary’ people whom they manipulate. Setting poor people against poor people, in a divide and rule tactic which has been so successful it sometimes feels like it has permanently damaged the UK.

Soon after this sad incident another wealthy Brexiteer indicated that when it comes to ‘taking back control’, he expects the control to remain in the usual hands and and the workers to do as they are told.  Brexit Party Chairman Richard Tice describes his career as ’30 years of making things happen in property investment’. He has been heavily involved in commercial property in London and across the UK, and says on his website, “I have always been an active investor in companies and projects, a strong believer in putting one’s money on the table, having skin in the game.” 

So it is perhaps not surprising that Mr Tice is now quite agitated about high-rent office blocks standing empty as some people continue to work from home. He says the government should lead by example, instructing civil servants to return to their offices. “And bluntly, if not, then let them go. There are plenty of other people who can do the job.” The battle cry of bad bosses throughout the ages – if you don’t like it, there are plenty of other people who would be glad of your job.

As the Brexit deadline approaches and unemployment rises, there is a very real danger that the rights of workers, and the rights of those who are looking for work, will be severely weakened. Many of the protections British workers now enjoy come from EU law. Leading Brexiteers, who have a long history of wanting to deregulate the labour market, see these rules as burdensome to business. Andrea Leadsom said, "I envisage there being absolutely no regulation whatsoever– no minimum wage, no maternity or paternity rights, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights – for the smallest companies that are trying to get off the ground." Boris Johnson said, "The weight of employment regulation is now back-breaking” whilst Liam Fox complained that it is ‘too difficult to hire and fire”. 

Brexiters particularly object to the Working Time Directive (WTD), which limits working hours to 48 per week – although there are many exemptions for situations where this is not practical. Brexiters have claimed that the removal of the WTD would be good for workers, because it would bring ‘an overtime boom’. But wouldn’t people prefer it if 48 hours work brought them a wage which didn’t need to be supplemented by overtime? Laughably, the Sun newspaper quoted an unnamed Brexiteer source as saying, "It will put the power to decide how hard to work back into the hands of the people who matter - the ordinary British worker." As if the ‘’ordinary British worker”, far from wanting more time for family or leisure, is just longing for the opportunity to work every waking hour to keep a roof over their head.

If leading Brexiteers get their way, and workers’ rights are eroded, the balance of power will shift further in favour of employers and the Jobcentre. At a time of rising unemployment and the harsh conditionality of Universal Credit, (courtesy of Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith) people could find themselves forced to accept ever more unreasonable and unjust terms and conditions of work, simply to avoid the state-imposed destitution of a benefit sanction. Brexit – not so much taking back control, as taking back control of the workers.

In the face of such threats, and outside of a General Election, the only thing the ‘ordinary British worker ‘ can do to protect themselves and increase their bargaining power with employers is to band together and join a union. Many of the rights we have now were not freely given, and outside of the EU they may be much more easily taken away.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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