Brexit Threatens Equal Pay Protections, U.K. Women's Groups Fear

  • Government could rewrite or repeal EU worker protections
  • Gender discrimination awards, comparable work seen as targets

Women won a record number of seats in the U.K. parliamentary election in June, but women’s groups fear Britain’s planned departure from the European Union could roll back decades of other meaningful advances for working women.

After Brexit, the U.K. won’t have to adhere to the EU’s minimum standards for worker protections, many of which are stronger than member countries might enact on their own. The EU also gives workers the right to appeal cases and claims to the European Court of Justice, the highest authority when it comes to interpreting EU law and its application.

There would be nothing to keep Britain from putting caps on gender discrimination claims or weakening the burden of proof for pay discrimination, for example. “The whole legal edifice is vulnerable,” according to Michael Ford, a professor of labor law at the University of Bristol Law School.

Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to maintain women’s rights, and the U.K. already exceeds EU minimum standards in some areas, including the length of paid maternity leave.

Still, leaving the EU opens the door for “a change of heart once the bulwark that EU law provides is gone,” said Michael Newman, a partner at Leigh Day, a law firm that deals with labor cases. The Fawcett Society and more than a dozen other women’s groups and political parties want to see May’s promise codified in an amendment to the so-called Repeal Bill that would officially adopt the current EU-levels of employment rights and protections.

EU negotiators are applying pressure from the other side, warning Britain that cutting worker protections would amount to “regulatory dumping.”

U.K. law already guarantees equal pay for those doing the same job, for example. EU law goes further by guaranteeing equal pay for different jobs, if they involve a comparable amount of effort and skill. Under EU law, a woman can challenge pay inequality if she can identify a male in a role which she argues is of equal value to her employer.

Based on this concept of “comparable work,” female store clerks are suing supermarket chain ASDA, claiming they were unfairly paid less than men who worked in its distribution centers. ASDA said it strongly disputes the claims, and that it pays men and women doing the same job the same.

“Pay rates in stores and distribution centers differ for legitimate reasons, including the different market rates for different types of jobs,” said Jack Woodhead, a spokesman for the retailer, a unit of Wal Mart.

The U.K. also limits claims for unfair dismissal at one year’s salary or 80,541 pounds ($103,777), whichever is smaller -- unless a person gets fired because of his or her gender, in which case EU law says damages are unlimited. Post Brexit, the U.K. could cap those awards too. Such a move could discourage claims if victims can’t recover their full losses, Newman said.

British women could also miss out on future gains implemented by the EU. For instance, the bloc’s executive commission proposed this year a program that would allow parents to take paid time off to care for sick children. It would also offer four months of parental leave with at least partial pay at any time during the child’s first 12 years. The proposals still need to be approved by the European Parliament.

Some argue that corporations will voluntarily match those kinds of benefits. “Talent is a scarce resource and even if legislation was lost I do not think there will be a going back,” said Miranda Pode, who runs the London office of recruiting firm Egon Zehnder.

Still, even the most generous maternity leave policy doesn’t mean that workers will be protected from discrimination. A study reported by the U.K.’s Press Association on Thursday said that 88 percent of British women don’t use the full year of leave allowed by law because they fear it could jeopardize their job.

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