Equality rights do not come from the EU

A recent TUC report claims that withdrawing from the EU would turn the clock back on women’s rights by “decades”. Yet there is evidence that the EU itself has been moving in this direction for some time, not least through its ruthless austerity programmes.

TUC general secretary Frances O Grady claimed that her report proved that women had made gains in the workplace as a result of EU membership, ranging from protection against pregnancy discrimination to fairer pay, holiday and pensions.

However Labour MP Kate Hoey immediately pointed out that women would continue to be protected by British laws won by trade unions if this country left the EU.

“All the benefits for women on equal pay and equal rights have been won by the hard work and campaigning of trade unionists and campaigners for equality.

“Maybe the TUC should speak to Greek women workers and see how the EU has treated them before producing such a biased report,” she remarked, more about that later.

Claims by those supporting EU membership that women’s rights have been handed down by a benevolent European Union have gone largely unchallenged for many years.

The truth, of course, is very different. The fight for equal wages here dates back hundreds of years, including the fact that the TUC passed a unanimous vote in support of equal pay in 1888.

The Labour Party included a Charter of Rights for all employees in its 1964 manifesto, including the right to equal pay for equal work, and the Wilson Government introduced Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act in 1970.

This Act was the result of mounting pressure from British workers; including strike action by the Ford women sewing machinists at Dagenham in 1968 and vigorous campaigning by the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal rights culminating in a massive demonstration in 1969.

Pro-EUers ignore these developments and point to the fact that the Treaty of Rome which established the legal framework of the EEC in 1957 set out the principle of equal pay for work of equal value in Article 119 – now Article 141 of the Treaty of Amsterdam.

However highly-respected discrimination law expert Richard Townsend-Smith pointed out in 1989 that far from being an example of the progressive nature of the EEC it was included largely as a concession to the French “who already had equal pay legislation and feared that they would be at a comparative disadvantage”.

So we can thank French workers and their struggles for any equal pay laws not EU institutions.

It is also explains why the European Commission took out infringement proceedings against the UK in the Court of Justice in 1982 under the provisions of Article 119 of the Treaty that widened the scope of equal pay to cover work of equal value.

It is at this point that Europhiles in the Labour movement began to argue that any improvements in workers’ rights can only be won at a European level and abandoned the idea of using national structures to democratically change UK law.

They also point to the fact that the EU has passed considerable equality legislation as part of the Social Chapter including that on maternity protection, parental leave rights, part-time work, working time, workers with family responsibilities and child care.

Yet much UK social equality legislation predates the EU, for example the Race Relations Act 1965 and 1968, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Legislation on these issues had long been fought for by workers and their organisations.

The origins of the Equality Act 2010 grew out of campaigning by many groups and was given Royal Assent just before the General Election. It was one of the last measures to be enacted under the Labour government.

Hence the Equality Act 2010 was the result of 14 years campaigning by equality specialists and human rights organisations in Britain. The Act incorporates nine pieces of legislation including the above and the Race Relations Act 1976, Disability Discrimination Act 1995, Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, Employment Equality (Sex Orientation) Regulations 2003, Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, The Equality Act 2006 Part 2 and The Equality Act (Sex Orientation) Regulations 2007.

The aim was to achieve harmonisation, simplification and modernisation of UK equality law.

Harold’s Wilson’s Labour government decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967 and it was legalised in Scotland in 1981. The Labour government introduced civil partnerships in 2005 and the Tories introduced gay marriage in 2014.

Yet gay rights across the EU remain much more restrictive in many member states.

There also remains a significant gender pay gap in practice nearly 60 years after the adoption of the Treaty of Rome. In fact equality legislation varies wildly across all countries of the EU.

What Europhiles don’t want you to know is that, at 52 weeks, Britain has about the best maternity leave in Europe; the statutory minimum under EU law is 14 weeks.

More interestingly a new Maternity Leave Directive first proposed in 2008, raising the minimum leave to 20 weeks, was quietly withdrawn by the European Commission on July 1 2015.

EuroActiv.com says the Commission, under pretext of simplifying EU law under the 2014 REFIT exercise, wanted to kill the draft as an attempt to dismantle women’s rights and gender equality in the EU institutions.

According to the European Women’s Lobby officer Mary Collins: “Rising conservative and religious forces and far right political actors are impacting negatively on women’s rights and are calling into question the very notion of rights – especially sexual and reproductive rights – that were hard fought for by previous generations of women and men”. 3.

She went on to say that the economic crisis and austerity measures have been “used as an excuse” to dismantle gender equality across all member states citing Slovenia where women used to enjoy 100 per cent of salary while on maternity leave which has been reduced “by 90 per cent or maybe more” over the last years.

According to the EuroActiv report maternity proposals are the victim of the Commission’s “better regulation” axe-man Frans Timmermans.

Swedish MEP Malin Bjork said that “this threat to get rid of the Maternity Leave Directive is serious because it contradicts the European Union’s so-called commitment to gender equality and effective work-life balance for women and men in Europe.

“It will also create a dangerous precedent for the “better regulation” agenda (REFIT) which is sacrificing social standards in the name of administrative burdens,” she said (4)

The idea that an EU that has imposed austerity on millions, particularly in countries like Greece, and is enforcing mass privatisation and TTIP is somehow ideologically wedded to equality of any kind over the interests of corporate capital is absurd.