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Government Could Face EU Legal Challenge Over Anti-Strikes Legislation

The Minimum Service Levels Bill – and plans to scrap all ‘retained’ EU laws – could be in breach of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, reports Josiah Mortimer

‘If these bills come into force, there is little doubt the UK would be in violation of its international commitments’ the head of the European TUC says. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa

Government Could Face EU Legal Challenge Over Anti-Strikes Legislation

The Minimum Service Levels Bill – and plans to scrap all ‘retained’ EU laws – could be in breach of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, reports Josiah Mortimer

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The EU has laid the ground for legal action if the UK Government breaches its commitment to workers’ rights under the Brexit deal.

The European Parliament has adopted a report backing the “enforcement and implementation” of the UK Withdrawal Agreement and the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

The Withdrawal Agreement committed the UK to protecting “labour conditions”. 

The subsequent 2021 Trade Agreement enshrined a “commitment to uphold their respective high levels of protection in the areas of labour and social standards, environment, the fight against climate change, and taxation”. 

It commits the EU and the UK not to “weaken or reduce, in a manner affecting trade or investment between the Parties, its labour and social levels of protection below the levels in place at the end of the transition period, including by failing to effectively enforce its law and standards”.

Labour protections specifically include “fundamental rights at work”, of which the right to strike is one, set out by the International Labour Organisation and the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Now the EU is laying out its plans to enforce protections set out in its agreements with the UK, in a move which could bring the UK Government’s Minimum Service Levels Bill into sharp relief. 

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The European TUC, representing member confederations across the EU, is particularly concerned about the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which seek to “repeal workers’ rights acquired over 50 years of EU membership” the body said in a statement.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would allow ministers to suspend parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, also risks “throwing open the delicate settlement reached to preserve a whole island economy by eliminating the need for a hard border”, the ETUC added. 

“At a time when the UK is threatening to disregard its commitments to maintaining workers’ rights under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, it is only right that the EU has the means to respond and is ready to deploy them,” ETUC General Secretary Esther Lynch said. “Undermining workers’ rights in the UK undermines workers’ rights in the EU. We need to avoid a race to the bottom.

“If these bills come into force, there is little doubt the UK would be in violation of its international commitments. The EU should stand ready to act in defence of workers’ rights and engage with trade unions, including through the Domestic Advisory Group.”

Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Paul Nowak said the Government is threatening to take a “wrecking ball” to workers’ rights – putting the UK on a collision course with the EU. That could in turn wreak havoc with the UK’s trading relationships.

The Retained EU law Bill would put a sunset clause on a host of workers’ rights adopted from Europe – including maximum working time regulations and guarantees on holiday pay. Nowak has said that the Conservatives do not have a mandate to “slash and burn people’s rights at work”.

Professor Keith Ewing, of the Institute of Employment Rights, told Byline Times that it is “good news that the EU is finally waking up to what is happening here”. 

“The Retained EU Law Bill threatens at the stroke of a pen to wipe out core workers’ rights (including the right to paid holidays), while the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill will weaken still further the power of trade unions,” he said.

Professor Keith Ewing says the Retained EU Law Bill threatens “at the stroke of a pen” to wipe out core workers’ rights. Photo: Mike Goldwater/Alamy

Both Bills are “clearly in breach” of the post-Brexit EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement which was approved by the current Parliament, he added. 

The Government gave firm commitments on workers rights in the Brexit agreement, Tony Burke, co-chair of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom, told Byline Times

“The decision to press ahead with scrapping many workers’ rights, secured via EU membership, cuts right across the Brexit deal,” he said. “It’s positive that the ETUC and TUC are preparing the ground to challenge the Government through the EU to maintain a level playing field on employment rights.”

The TUC has said that the Minimum Service Levels Bill – which will hit six key sectors including transport and health – will mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they could be forced to work and sacked if they don’t. 


The union-backed group Enough is Enough has launched a campaign and petition to ‘Defend the #RightToStrike’.

Last month, the TUC welcomed interventions from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and President Joe Biden’s administration in the US against the Government’s new anti-strikes Bill.

The ILO – the UN’s agency for workers’ rights – denied Rishi Sunak’s claim that it backed the UK’s tough new strike laws. The organisation’s head Gilbert Houngbo said he was “very worried about workers having to accept situations” due to being faced with the threat of losing their jobs if they refuse to work during strikes.

And US Labour Secretary Marty Walsh said he disagrees with the idea of “minimum service agreements” for public sector workers, and suggested that they may be detrimental to workers.

The Minimum Service Levels Bill is currently being considered by the House of Lords and is set to return later this month, following recess. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – brought in by Liz Truss when she was Trade Secretary – could be withdrawn if the EU and UK come to a deal soon to revise border controls on goods in Northern Ireland. 

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