A tiny change perhaps. Honestly. You'll barely notice it. Photo: Shutterstock

Friday 1st July 2016

A very small shift

Will anything much change after the Brexit vote?

One week after the vote to leave the European Union, consequences are still sinking in.

Lengthy negotiations between the UK Government and the remaining 27 member states will now begin in an attempt to secure a trade relationship. What shape these negotiations will take remains unknown. It’s widely anticipated that, in order to trade with the EU, the UK will have to continue to embrace some of Europe’s employment and health & safety laws.

So will Brexit bring about the dawn of a new era of UK employment law? Will the EU continue to have a hold over the UK’s domestic arrangements? And indeed, would UK workers want it any other way?

Far reaching influence

Before the vote, the EU’s influence on employment law was raised as both a reason for and against Brexit.

On the one hand, leave campaigners argued that Brexit would allow the UK to detach itself from the cumbersome EU red tape that hampered economic growth and development.

On the other, remain campaigners argued that the employment rights emanating from EU Directives had made for fairer and better working.

Whatever your leaning, the extent of European influence on UK employment law cannot be understated. UK equality law, brought in by The Equality Act, comes from the European Equal Treatment Directive. Limits on working time and the right-to-be-paid annual leave comes from the European Working Time Directive, while the protection offered to employees on the transfer of a business (TUPE) are based solely on European law.

The decision to leave the EU has no immediate impact on these laws because the UK has implemented all EU Directives into UK Regulations – these Regulations can only be repealed by the UK Government.

That said, in theory Brexit will free the UK Government to roll back a raft of employment rights and health & safety regulations. Yet there’s every reason to believe that the impact of an exit from the EU may have less of an impact than some fear and others hope.

Nothing radical

Negotiations between the UK Government and the remaining member states will undoubtedly take some time, possibly up to two years. It’s therefore unlikely that any radical changes will be implemented in the short term.

Looking to the longer term, it seems generally accepted that the UK wants to retain some form of relationship with the EU. This relationship will perhaps be along the lines of that enjoyed by Norway or Switzerland. However, that would involve the UK having to accept some EU legislation, including employment legislation.

Even if the UK was to sever all ties with Europe, there are practical difficulties with a ‘slash and burn’ approach to employment and health & safety regulations. People may complain about interference from Brussels, but how many would be happy to lose their right to paid annual leave, or accept a situation where employers could freely discriminate against job applicants based on their race, gender, age or sexual orientation?


Far more likely than a wholesale change to the employment landscape is a tinkering around the edges.

One or two of the more unpopular, or less obviously necessary, regulations may disappear. For instance, the Agency Workers Regulations could be in the firing line.

The right to paid leave under the Working Time Regulations would in all probability remain in place, but some of the other restrictions on working hours could go.

It is difficult to see a Government of any hue, make any significant changes to discrimination legislation or ‘family friendly’ rights. The right to claim unfair dismissal is one of the few pieces of employment legislation that derives wholly from UK domestic law and is unlikely to be affected.

The debate over Europe has excited much passion on all sides, but maybe the truth is that despite the rhetoric, certainly in employment and health & safety terms, not a lot may end up changing.

About the author

Donald MacKinnon

Donald is the Director of Legal Services at Law at Work, a business support organisation which specialises in helping clients identify, manage, reduce, and eliminate risk in employment law, human resources, and health and safety. You can catch up with Donald and his team at the site below, and on Law at Work TV.