EU laws often get a bad rep.
Sometimes, just as with national laws, the criticism is deserved. For example, you won’t see me defending the EU Treaty rule which forces MEPs to decamp toStrasbourg every month, at great cost to both the taxpayer and the environment.
But quite often, we MEPs find ourselves defending EU laws against widespread misinformation and unfounded claims. Just last week, a sketch in a local paper claimed that “the EU have banned the sale of batter bits” in local chippies. Complete nonsense. In fact, one upmarket restaurant has even added them to the menu. (As far as I know, the European Commission has not launched infringement proceedings against the chef.)
This becomes a serious problem when discussing the EU’s health and safety laws. It’s becoming harder and harder to find any good press about these, amongst all the ridiculous and untrue headlines about preventing kids from blowing up balloons or forcing trapeze artists to wear hard hats.
There is a real risk that all this misinformation could undermine public support for genuine health and safety rules. We all depend on health and safety guarantees so we can have a good work-life balance. In some industries, for example in construction or the emergency services, the laws even save people’s lives.
Of course, health and safety covers hard hats, protective equipment and the like. But many people might be surprised to find out just how many of their rights are secured under the ‘health and safety’ heading. The Working Time Directive, for example, is what ensures we have at least four weeks’ paid holiday each year, as well as rest breaks and the length of the working week. Before this Directive was passed in 1993, there was no legal guarantee of paid holidays forUK workers.
For working mums or soon-to-be mums, the Pregnant Workers Directive – another part of the EU’s health and safety framework – underpins your right to maternity leave, and ensures that your employer takes into account the health of your unborn or breastfeeding child whilst you are at work. Clearly, people’s working lives would be very different without these guarantees.
Yet it is a critical time for health and safety. In February, the Tory leader in the EU, then Martin Callanan, called for these two Directives to be scrapped entirely, allowing the UK Government to take away these rights. David Cameron has also said health and safety laws should be repatriated, in particular the Working Time Directive. Meanwhile, in December, Conservative and Lib Dem MEPs called for strict limits on new health and safety laws – and these MEPs are expected to be at the forefront of a new “informal committee” on health and safety in the European Parliament.
So this weekend, I was delighted to speak at a UCATT conference on health and safety to set the record straight. It is vital that employees and Trade Unionists understand how important these EU laws are to ordinary people’s working lives. We must all realise, too, that when the Government calls for “repatriation” of health and safety laws to theUK, they are really calling for important rights to be stripped away from workers.
Bogus headlines about “health and safety gone mad” can often cloud the issue – but in reality, as UCATT members in the construction industry know, people’s lives and livelihoods depend on their health and safety at work.