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Unions Warn Brexit Could Make UK ‘Bargain Basement Capital of Europe’

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On the day British MPs debate the government’s proposed agenda for new terms of dealing with the European Union post-Brexit, union leaders have warned that there is growing concern among British workers that the UK could become the bargain basement capital of Europe after leaving the EU.

The leader of Britain’s biggest federation of union workers, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Frances O’Grady, has told MPs that the government’s reluctance to share its plans for the future of the UK outside of the European Union is leading to “growing concern” that Britain may become the “bargain basement capital of Europe”. She said that employment and other workers’ rights that have been gained as a result of Britain’s membership of the EU may be eroded in the event of Britain leaving the EU and making new agreements outside of the organization and that British workers needed reassurances over the government’s plans for a post-Brexit Britain.

“As a trade unionist, I like promises. I prefer guarantees. We are worried about what happens to workers’ rights in the future. The EU is currently considering improving workers’ rights in the area of posted workers and family-friendly rights and we don’t want to see workers missing out,” she said.

Trades unionists are concerned that Britain could negotiate new trade agreements with EU and other countries that erode workers’ benefits won under EU laws, in an effort to make British goods and services cheaper and more competitive that those of other trading nations. “The principle that a worker — if they are doing the same job in the same company — should get the same pay and treatment is very important to us and we think would also help deal with some of the understandable fears that people have of the undercutting of wages,” said O’Grady. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has been forced to concede that she will share her plans for a post-Brexit world, despite attempting to play her bargaining chips close to her chest ahead of the negotiations with Brussels. However, the opposition Labour Party tabled a motion, Wednesday (December 7) to force her to agree to publish her Brexit plans ahead of any decision to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which formally begins the process, although it is unlikely the plans will contain as much detail as the unions or the Labour Party are calling for.

‘Best Possible’ Deals

Speaking for the employers, Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-general, Confederation of British Industry, said its members — representing thousands of businesses of all sizes in the UK — wanted Britain to have “barrier-free” access to the single market in Europe, access to skills and talent and a common regulatory environment.

“[The CBI] wants the best possible trade deals around the world and the protection of economic and social benefits that we currently enjoy from European funding. However, there are serious concerns about the red tape, the bureaucracy, the return of customs barriers and ‘rules of origin’ reporting,” Fairbairn said.

Theresa May’s Government is under pressure to lay out its plans for what new relationship it will have with the European Union once it has formally left the organization, but she is unwilling to give away much ahead of formal negotiations. The fact that both the unions and the major employers are calling for clarity on Brexit — an issue for which the CBI’s Fairbairn admits there is “no precedent” — is leading to political uncertainty which is likely to create strong headwinds in future negotiations with Brussels.

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