What will happen to workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain?

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Great Britain is leaving the EU. There will be consequences on almost every level of our society, from the economy and our political commitments on the continent, to the various EU directives that may no longer form part of our domestic law.

One of the areas likely to be affected is workers’ rights – an issue we wrote about on the day of the EU referendum. Though it is difficult to know exactly what will happen in this central part of our working lives in the post-Brexit future, here we look at some of the possible implications moving forward.

Before the referendum, Trade Union leaders expressed dismay at the idea of a government uninhibited by EU basic minimums. These minimums guarantee maternity and paternity rights, equal treatment for full-time, part-time and agency workers, and the right to paid leave, among others. They predicted that, in the wake of a Leave vote, a Conservative government would remove these rights which are enshrined in European law.

This fear does not seem misplaced. Like their plans to renounce the Human Rights Act, the government has previously tried to implement legislation that would ‘cripple workers’ rights to take strike action’ and remove the Working Time Directive which limits the working week to a maximum of 48 hours on average. But they were prevented from doing so by the EU. Now Britain has left, these efforts could be back on the table, with the one guaranteed protection for workers’ rights – the EU – taken out of the equation.


EU membership ensures the UK has, among other things, a minimum level of protection around health and safety in the workplace, prevention of discrimination, equal opportunities, and labour laws protecting part-time workers and young people. Already the UK was one of the least regulated EU members, with workers having the right to opt out of the Working Time Directive, fewer protections for agency workers and weaker employment protection regulating dismissals.

As things currently stand, the UK government complies with or exceeds these minimums, but, now they are no longer in place as EU law, they can, and may well be amended or repealed. If the Conservative Party shifts its political position with a change of leadership, further to the right perhaps, Jason Heyes, Professor of Employment Relations at the University of Sheffield, says ‘there would be little to prevent a far more substantial attack on employment rights’.

The crucial fact to understand is that, without any precedent or plan for exiting the EU, no one knows for sure what will happen. The fear is, however, that a UK government without the guaranteed minimum rights and the checks and balances the EU offers would be free to re-legislate. Based on previously declared intentions and the negative prospects from Trade Unions, the future is far from certain and far from bright when it comes to workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain.


The EU Referendum: what are the implications for workers’ rights?

A cornerstone of the argument for voting to Remain in the European Union today is the belief that UK membership of the EU guarantees and protects workers’ rights. The counterclaim, from the Leave campaign, contends the exact reverse – that the UK goes beyond the EU prescribed minimums and either ensured certain rights before joining the EU or protects them through independent legislation.

But what are the facts behind the rhetoric – what does the EU do for workers, and what effect will a vote to leave have?

The general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Frances O’Grady, made a warning earlier this year that sets out the Remain argument for workers quite clearly. She said: “Working people have a huge stake in the referendum because workers’ rights are on the line.

“It’s the EU that guarantees workers their rights to paid holidays, parental leave, equal treatment for part-timers and much more. These rights can’t be taken for granted. There are no guarantees that any government will keep them if the UK leaves the EU. And without the back-up of EU laws, unscrupulous employers will have free rein to cut many of the workers’ hard-won benefits and protections.”

And, in addition to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s assertions that leaving the EU would reduce or even remove these rights, ten of the UK’s trade union leaders wrote a letter to The Guardian earlier this month underlining the importance of EU membership for UK workers moving forward.

Perhaps predictably, this letter was contradicted in a reply from MPs and trade unionists in favour of leaving the EU. They claim that paternity leave is enshrined in UK, not EU, law, that maternity leave in the UK substantially exceeds the EU guaranteed minimum and that equal pay was a UK right before Great Britain became a member of the EU in 1973. On the basis of this history, the implication is that UK governments and employers of the future would continue to protect, and even increase, workers’ rights moving forward.

Amid this confusion in the days and hours before the referendum, what is the truth when it comes to workers’ rights and the EU?

It is true that the EU ensures a base minimum of rights for employees; from health and safety in the workplace and prevention of discrimination to equal opportunities and labour laws protecting part-time workers and young people. The EU Commission sets out explicitly that these are EU directives that must be made a part of the legislation in individual member countries, including the UK.

Just this year, for example, the EU heard from the Foundation for Living and Working Conditions about how to improve standards of living, working conditions and making work sustainable for people living in the EU. It also formed a directive requiring employers to consult staff representatives in cases of collective redundancies and setting out what information they must provide, and they instructed member governments to ratify legislation which prevents forced labour by the end of 2016.

And these rights have been put in place in the UK. Workers are guaranteed the National Minimum Wage, the statutory minimum level of paid holiday, rest breaks, protection against discrimination, fair treatment of part-time workers and many other areas based in UK law. UK workers are protected by laws such as the Employment Rights Act (1996) and the Equality Act (2010), passed by the British government both as a result of EU directives and treaties and independent, UK-sourced law.

A controversial example of this process in action is the Working Time Directive – coming from the EU and implemented by the UK – which governs the number of hours an employee can be asked to work. Right now, the average weekly working time, including overtime, cannot exceed 48 hours. However, some voices of the Leave campaign would seek to amend this law, limiting its application.

And this is where it becomes both confusing and vastly important – what will happen post-Brexit, if that is the decision of the British public? The claims oppose each other – the Remain camp argue that workers’ rights would be damaged, the Leave camp say they would continue to be protected. So who should you believe?

According to BBC Reality Check, the impact of leaving the EU on workers’ rights would very much depend on what legislation future UK governments decide to keep, amend, throw out, or introduce – a matter that is, right now, unknown.

The reality is that, upon leaving the EU, the UK government would no longer be obligated to implement EU directives, but it also has its own laws affecting workers that may well continue as they are. For instance, pre-existing and independent laws protecting rights like annual leave could be unaffected, and EU-sourced legislation, such as women’s rights in the workplace, could be under threat. Put simply, there are no direct answers on which workers’ rights will be maintained and which will be scrapped – these rights, many of which are underscored by or have come directly from the EU, are up in the air in the unknown quantity of a post-referendum future.

The truth behind the rhetoric is, therefore, this: The EU both introduces and underpins many UK workers’ rights, and the UK government both exceeds the minimum EU guarantees and has independent laws guaranteeing extra rights for workers that are not covered by the EU. What all this means after Thursday depends on several variables including future governments and their decisions when it comes to existing and new laws affecting workers’ rights. It is impossible to predict what will happen, but the EU Referendum will certainly have an impact, one way or the other.

The Plague of Business Clickbait

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In the Karian and Box office, we may occasionally be guilty of an enjoyable lunch break scroll through the clickbait rabbit warren that is Buzzfeed. Sure, we’ll click on “The Top 10 Cutest Pictures of Dogs Wearing Socks” or “28 Dogs That Will Make Your Day Instantly Better”. But it’s immensely frustrating when the same approach is extended to more serious topics, like workplace psychology and employee engagement.

In the business space, these topics are widely discussed. However, there’s a huge number of clickbait posts that look temptingly flavoursome but offer insubstantial empty calories. One of the issues, perhaps, is the chasm between academia and the rest of the world – academic findings have a habit either of languishing in the niche publications in which they first appeared or being cherry-picked for the juiciest nuggets while ignoring the rest. Sometimes their findings are misreported by the wider media, keen for a satisfying black-and-white headline and less eager to publish stories sketched in shades of grey.

This happens a lot with employee engagement. Countless posts claim to offer the need-to-know business secrets that will make your employees happier, your business healthier and your bottom line more productive. But when something seems too good to be true, it usually is – there aren’t any quick fixes that will solve business issues overnight.

Even academia isn’t immune to underhand dealings – a 2015 study by U.S. Federal Reserve researchers concluded that almost half of economics papers don’t pass one of the golden tenets of science: the test of replicability.

Employee engagement is a relatively recent concept, but what we’ve found in our research with thousands of employees is that three enablers – vision, team and voice – remain core factors. While some useful takeaway pointers can often be extracted from the melee of articles and posts, a lot of stories simply have the same old messages dressed up in different clothing.

The moral of the story? Always read stories and papers with a questioning view – interrogate claims, make sure they are grounded in evidence and look for different sources that support what they’re saying. It’s best to use common sense and a healthy dose of scepticism when you’re reading up on workplace psychology and business issues.

Wearable tech in the workplace

Wearable technologyWe know that physical and mental wellbeing is important for employee engagement and productivity. There is a clear feedback loop between employee health and engagement with an organisation. Managers who show that they sincerely care about employee wellbeing act as a driver of engagement, and Watson Wyatt (2009) found that highly engaged colleagues are much less likely to take sick days.

An increasing number of companies are investing in the health of their employees with wellness programmes and fitness schemes. Some companies are now even monitoring employees with fitness trackers, in a move that’s reminiscent of Dave Eggers’ The Circle, in which employees swallow tiny trackers and wear bracelets that share every collectable piece of data about their personal wellbeing.

But are these companies going a step too far to encourage their employees to do their recommended 10,000 steps a day? Wearable technology gives companies the ability to collect vast amounts of data on their employees, mining this data for insights which can potentially be linked to business performance indicators such as productivity and financial returns.

Big data is big news – we have the capability to collect more information than ever before, and many of us voluntarily share data about our daily lives, from the location-tracking apps on our smartphones to the social media stories that we ‘like’. Internet surveillance and mass collection of data seems inescapable, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that a survey from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that “a large pool of Americans feel resigned to the inevitability of surveillance and the power of marketers to harvest their data”.

The Orwellian ‘Big Brother is watching you’ factor is a huge issue in employees feeling comfortable with wearable tech. While The Economist Intelligence Unit argues that the majority of employees are happy with fitness monitoring as long as they receive a clear and transparent privacy guarantee, the Penn-Annenberg research counters this with the finding that knowledge is not a prerequisite for trust. In their survey, people who know the most about marketing practices are more likely to be resigned to their inevitability – they feel powerless to change anything.

Supporters of wearable tech argue that it is harmless as long as it is transparent. But it seems that many people actually feel it is futile to challenge the omnipresent collection of personal information, believing that they have already lost control over their data.

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That’s not to say that wearable technology in the workplace is all bad – it has clear potential. Take ‘SmartCaps‘, for instance. A SmartCap is a baseball cap with a difference: it contains sensors to detect alertness levels and fatigue, and sounds an alarm before a dangerous “micro-sleep event”. Rio Tinto and Anglo American are among the businesses who have started to implement this new technology, helping to increase safety in their mines.

But it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have clear advantages for using products such as SmartCaps, especially considering that operator fatigue is one of the main reasons for mining accidents. On the flip side, the high-level nature of monitoring technology means that companies can choose to monitor the tiniest details of their employees’ workdays – leading to ethical issues such as invasion of privacy, security dangers like data breaches and cyber-attacks, and the potential for lowered morale and engagement.

It might also be worth considering that instead of searching for a technological solution to issues in the workplace, there could be other simpler and less costly solutions. If fatigue is a major issue, perhaps focusing on scheduling (e.g. optimal working hours and break times) could help to resolve the problem. SmartCaps are a great idea, but they can’t stop someone being fatigued unless they are paired with a fix that addresses the root cause.

A more dubious example of wearable tech in the workplace is Amazon’s alleged use of electronic trackers to monitor the number of boxes that employees pack, sensing if workers are spending time chatting or taking too many bathroom breaks. It’s a brutal system of ‘survival of the fittest’, with GPS trackers allegedly being used to track the routes employees take – employees who work in these types of conditions are at an increased risk of physical and mental illness. There are many dangers to this type of monitoring: it treats workers like machines and sends signals to employees that they can’t be trusted, creating a culture of fear and blame.

For the time-being, it’s up to individual companies to set their own parameters on wearable tech – there isn’t a set of agreed standards or best practices for its use. We think that the most important starting point is that wearable tech programmes should always be optional. Even when they have an excellent purpose – like the SmartCap – making them mandatory could be a slippery slope towards a dystopian future.

If organisations choose to use wearable tech as a way of increasing engagement, they need to be aware of the potential pitfalls and the possibility that it could backfire.

The Flip Side of Freedom: when unlimited vacation time backfires

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Indulgent employee benefits such as unlimited time off policies may sound like they were dreamed up by a bored worker on a slow Tuesday.

However, offering unrestricted holiday is becoming more widespread among companies, especially in the US. Virgin, Twitter and LinkedIn employees all have the luxury of unlimited paid vacation time, and several young companies and start-ups are following suit.

Clearly, it places a huge amount of trust in the individual employee – allowing them to take time off at their discretion and having confidence in them to make the judgement that it won’t damage their projects, their career or the interests of the business.

At face value, this sounds like a leap towards utopia – who would say no to unlimited holiday? But these policies have a clever effect. Giving employees the freedom to take vacation time as and when they please actually constrains their leisure time. Your first thought might be: why? Surely offering employees unlimited paid time away from their jobs is going to result in a few ‘bad eggs’ milking the policy for all it’s worth?

It isn’t a surprise to see that the companies who are offering these policies are competitive businesses with high-octane workforces. Their people are driven to succeed and regularly put in the hours, so it’s unlikely that the best employees are going to take full advantage of the policy.

And then a precedent is set by the most hard-working, driven team members: the role models who lead the way. Everyone else follows suit, ironically resulting in people taking less annual leave than if they were simply limited to a set number of weeks per year. Management Today discusses how unlimited PTO can backfire, in the case on online messaging company Evernote:

…instead of staff taking more time off work the opposite happened and people stopped taking holiday altogether […] the problem became so acute that Evernote was forced to incentivise staff to actually leave the office by offering $1,000 (£657) for anyone taking at least five days holiday.

Feelings of guilt creep in, with people worrying about using the policy and the amount of time that they spend away from work. How much is too much? What’s the right balance?

When we’re faced with unlimited resources, we often struggle to make a wise choice and we end up by going for the inferior option. Whereas a fixed annual leave policy offers a clear directive to employees, unlimited choice means that employees have to decide for themselves how much is acceptable. And that’s a difficult decision which, as humans, our brains tend to shy away from.

So, offering such an ostensibly tempting benefit may well result in employees underutilising it, eventually leading to increased stress and burnout. There is such a thing as “too good to be true” – it’s wise to be wary of the flip side of freedom.

What do you think of unlimited vacation policies? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Karian and Box volunteer in Lesvos – the team’s story

The team’s story: safety for a few, but more continue to suffer

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Another day on the beach, and another dinghy full of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Anyone who saw the haunting images of the starving families in Madaya cannot but understand the desperation of people fleeing war, hunger and death.

Millions remain in Syria, suffering immeasurably.

But yesterday, another dinghy did get through the many obstacles faced by the refugees in it.

Unlike the dinghy that collapsed last week (with four people drowning), this one got ashore safely after hours travelling from Turkey.

Numerous families were tired and cold and in need of high-energy fruit and juice. Our team helped with the task of welcoming the kids, some of whom were still frightened, and others bewildered.

Dan and Rebecca were especially good at comforting the younger ones, making sure they had warm clothes and food.

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It was a cold but clear day. The challenge for the next few days is that the weather is taking a turn for the worse, with heavy rain, sleet and snow forecast. The freezing temperatures will make it hard for the families making the crossing, and those in the camps.

But it is only one precarious step in the journey that many of these families will make. From Greece, they will trudge onwards to Germany, Sweden or other nations who have more willingly opened their arms and doors to them. But first, they have to navigate the bitter winter conditions of Macedonia, Hungary and /or Austria on the way.

As we said goodbye to those families we met briefly off the boats and in the camps, all of us wondered where they would end up.

What did the future hold for five year old Sami, one of the children we comforted, and the millions like him?

Karian and Box volunteer in Lesvos: One spoon, one meal

This is Rory’s story.

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A huge amount of our time on Lesvos was spent distributing lifelines to refugees and migrants: clothes, bedding, and shoes were all in desperately short supply – worn out or destroyed during the sea crossing.

In each shift you will come across hundreds, maybe thousands, of people and each of these encounters represents a dilemma: what can we afford to give? When we don’t know how many mouths we have to feed, how do we decide who gets to eat? When we don’t know how many more migrants and refugees will arrive overnight, how do we decide how much clothing we should give out?

It’s an impossible balance to strike.

Distributing food in the Moria camp, the queues of hungry people extended out of sight. Hundreds of people would queue whilst their tired families slept in tents or on the ground nearby. On paper the job was simple – give everyone a spoon for each portion they are to receive. These small plastic spoons were, quite literally, a meal ticket.

As one person left the queue with food, another would join. Meanwhile the portions of food would only diminish. As we grew more concerned over the supply of food, we were told to distribute no more than four portions so that everyone is able to eat. The Afghani man next in the queue raises six fingers to indicate how many portions he needs and gestures to me that he has small children.  We can only give four portions. A Syrian man shakes my hand and asks me where I’m from, I tell him and he says that he needs 8 portions for his family, but we can only give four portions.

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As the line gradually subsides, we see that there are still plenty of meals left over. On this occasion we have been slightly too cautious. I’m told that the previous week too many meals were given away and hundreds of people in the queues were left hungry.

Ultimately, the problem here isn’t so much that we make the wrong decisions — it’s that we have to make them at all. The problem here is scarcity. If there was enough food to eat, if there were enough coats and shoes to protect from the cold, then we wouldn’t be confronted with the prospect of denying these things to those who sorely need them.

Perhaps when we see scarcity like this we need to ask ourselves, what can we afford to give?

GoFundMe campaign – K&B Lesvos Aid

Karian and Box volunteer in Lesvos — Behind-the-scenes work makes a difference

This is Dan’s story.

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Volunteering in a place like Lesvos does not always mean being on the front line of work with refugees. Much of it is practical, often mundane.

The sorting, packing, unpacking, reorganizing of constant clothing donations is just one case in point. A camp where hundreds or thousands of refugees arrive with little clothing other than that on their backs needs a constant supply of seasonal clothing items. And they need volunteers to help sort and distribute them.

The main VCA (Volunteer’s Co-ordination Agency) distribution points in Kara Tepe where we’ve based ourselves were to receive an upgrade. Days of rain had begun to take its toll on the thousands of cardboard boxes placed in huts and tents, with many (and the clothing inside) becoming damp.

Stable raised floors (made from old wooden pallets) needed to be placed in every tent and hut and this required taking out every one of the thousand-plus boxes, re-organizing them and putting them back in onto the new, solid flooring.

This task alone took several hours and each respective doorway had human chains passing boxes containing all sorts of items from toothbrushes to soap, to shoes and hats.

It wasn’t easy and we had to suspend clothing distribution. This caused huge frustration for the refugees who desperately needed shoes to replace those that had become sodden from sea water when getting out of the dinghies they’d travelled in. Many also needed warm clothes as the nights were bitterly cold and many simply had light jumpers or coats with nothing else to keep them warm.

But a day of back-breaking work, shifting boxes paid off. The following day, we had a much better organised set of huts from which to more swiftly deal with the needs of refugees. Priority was given to families with little children, and to those who had little or no warm clothing with them.

So, without the unglamorous and tedious task of shifting boxes all day, we would not have salvaged tons of donated clothes from rain water and would have spent too much chaotic time searching for the right items of clothing for the people who needed them.

PS: one of the heroes of the Kara Tepe VCA point was a guy called George, who is a hotelier from Crete, spending his holidays working the camp. He was valiant in his efforts on the ground, day-in, day-out…

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Karian and Box volunteer in Lesvos – The boredom of waiting

This is Ghassan’s story.

Emotions are not in short supply in a refugee camp – frustration, anger, fear, deep sadness and, yes, happiness too are found in abundance at every corner of the camp’s rows of corrugated huts.

Boredom is also part of life for refugees waiting to make the next stage of their journey to safety and a new home. Waiting for the next meal; for the clothing tent to open; for the doctor; for registration as a ‘legit’ refugee with the official paperwork. And with lots of waiting, comes boredom.

Kids pass the time playing with sticks and whatever they can find around the camp. Adults mill around or simply wait in their hut or tent (mostly in darkness as there is little or no electricity in the camps).

So it was with some surprise that I heard Arabic music playing as I was doing my food distribution rounds at the back of the camp yesterday. Thinking it was an enterprising individual who had a battery operated radio, it was even more of a surprise to find three guys sitting outside their hut playing and singing traditional Syrian songs. With a violin and an Arab drum, they were keeping themselves occupied and entertained. More importantly, they were entertaining the people in the few huts around them.

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I asked if they would be willing to play to the rest of the camp queued for the lunch Oxfam distribute, and they jumped at the chance. We soon had a huge crowd listening, clapping and joining in.

Feeding the people in the camp is critical but it is too often that their emotional needs go unmet. Whether it be organising a football game for the young guys, putting on music for people or other ways of helping them forget about their many worries, it is the one thing that is sorely needed.

PS: Chatting with the musical trio, Wael Karam (the violinist) told me how all three of them had had to travel light from Syria and to throw away any unnecessary items of clothing or luggage. The one thing he could never be parted from was his violin — “Even if I have to lose everything else, I can never be parted from it. It is my life, like another part of me.”

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Refugee camp shelters Lesvos

Karian and Box volunteer in Lesvos – life-changing decisions based on an accent

This is Sigita’s story.

He gives me a big smile and says “Thank you, thank you for being here for us”. I hesitate to respond for a moment. His words were so honest, his gratitude was so genuine and his smile was so warm. It’s the middle of the night and we have just helped him and 30-40 other people to get onto Greek shores safely. I ask him where he was from. “Syria, Damascus,” he responds while heading towards a bus. “Where are you going?” I wonder. “Germany,” he responds. “Good luck with your trip,” I say and get one last smile from him before he disappears.

The bus takes them all to Moria’s refugee camp where they will have to register before heading to their destination. However, not all of them will be allowed to continue even though they are all tired, scared and hungry after days spent in the sea.

As thousands of people coming to Greece every week, local officials are trying their best to manage the crisis. And the first step is determining who is a refugee and who is an economic migrant. Refugees come to Europe because of a war in their country, looking for safety while economic migrants seek better living standards. Only those deemed to be refugees (it is currently Syrians that are mostly treated as refugees) will be allowed to continue, while others will be refused entrance.

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What seemed to be an easy task at first turned out to be a great challenge. Economic migrants soon realised that their passports prevented them from continuing the journey. So they started throwing their documents into the sea as soon as a boat would be in a close proximity from the Greek shores.

Greek officials struggled. They all speak the same language, they look similar, how do we know who needs our help the most? For some time it was enough to say that you were from Syria and you were given a green light to go to Germany or any other European country of your choice.

However, even though all people speak Arabic, there are subtle differences in accents between Syrians and an Iraqi or someone Lebanese. Translators who could tell an accent were hired. Now everyone who comes to Greece without their documents has to have a chat with translators to get their future determined.

So if you speak the right kind of Arabic, you can pass… But what if you’re a Syrian Kurd who speaks a very specific dialect that is more akin to Iraqi? It is only one of the incredible decisions that hard-pressed local aid agencies and authorities have to make every day. Who gets clothes or a candle and who doesn’t? Who gets the pass to travel, who gets sent back and gets stuck in limbo? Whatever there is, we’ve found there are few easy decisions here on the ground.


Your kind donations to our GoFundMe campaign are going directly to provide essential aid to refugees here on the island. Thanks for your support.