Yesterday we published figures showing that UK workers had gained 1.5 billion days more paid leave through our adoption of the EU minimum standard.
Today I’ve been looking at some of the rather flimsy assertions made around our paid holiday rights by those who are keen to leave the European Union.
“UK governments could have legislated to provide an independent minimum standard on paid annual leave”
This is a somewhat mendacious view, given that more than a quarter of the UK workforce still did not have the EU minimum of 4 weeks paid leave when the European standard was adopted by the UK government.
The fact is that the UK did not adopt the ILO convention on paid holidays C.132 (1970). Even if we had adopted this standard it is hard to see how it would have really helped UK workers, as it would have set a very low bar indeed; “Every person to whom this convention applies shall be entitled to an annual paid holiday of a specified minimum length.” The problem was that the UK could not have met that standard to give at least some leave to the 2 million plus employees who had no leave at all – largely part time workers – so the governments of the 1970s simply said “no”.
The 1938 Holidays with Pay Act has also been mentioned as an example of the UK protecting worker rights. The problem with this view is that UK standards under this act were much lower than the 4 weeks provided by the EU – and almost non-existent after 1993. The Act empowered the wages councils to stipulate holiday entitlements in the low paid industries where they operated. Some industries simply were not covered, and entitlements of 2 or 3 weeks per year were most common in the industries that they did cover. Most tellingly, the wages councils were abolished by the Major government in 1993 (except for agriculture). Holiday entitlements then fell in some industries, and the Holidays with Pay Act was rendered toothless.
The Blair Labour government deserves a lot of praise for adopting the EU legalisation and giving millions of workers paid holidays, but even they initially excluded those with less than 13 weeks service. This position was overturned by a case taken to the European Court of Justice by the theatre technicians’ trade union BECTU.
“Workers won’t lose holiday entitlements even if the UK is not bound by the WTD, as they will still have contractual rights.”
Of course this is true up to a point, but it will not apply to new starters, so employers who can get away with offering less are likely to do so.
In addition, the contractual right to paid holidays is only enforceable by taking a case to employment tribunal, which many workers would find disruptive, intimidating and, crucially, expensive (there is a fee of at least £390).
Furthermore, contractual rights are not immutable, as an employer would be able to issue a notice proposing that holiday entitlements reduced and, where there is no union to argue about it, employees must accept or face redundancy.
“Politicians would protect our holidays even if we were not protected by the EU minimum standard.”
Actually, John Major’s government swept away the statutory right to holidays for a couple of million workers in low paid industries and contractual rights fell in these industries. This was unpopular, but despite the TUC’s efforts there was no overwhelming public campaign to defend them.
It is already certain that the government would be under pressure to roll-back the European Court of Justice cases on holiday pay, which clarified issues like whether allowances like overtime pay count towards the calculation of holiday pay. A UK government would be free to reverse these judgements, and it seem likely some workers would lose out quickly. And it would be the most vulnerable workers who would lose out – women working part-time, agency workers, those on zero-hours contracts and so on.
Finally, in my view the Cameron government understands the raw material of popularity, so it is unlikely that they would scrap the EU law in its entirety, although I do believe that they would trim it. But it is not certain that the political composition of the government would be so pragmatic in the wake of a “leave” vote. In fact it is easy to imagine a Conservative government with a new leader and a party with a strong appetite for deregulation, dressed up in the name of competitiveness. In such a case then the law on paid holidays could easily be a casualty, as it was under the Conservative government of 1993.
So this is project reality – when it comes to paid holiday rights, Brexit would be all about generating a risk, with no possible upside in sight.