Women's rights at risk after Brexit

Add your name to our open letter, demanding a people's vote to protect women's rights in the Brexit deal

Much attention has been focussed on arguments about trade and the economy but not enough on the impact leaving the EU will have on our rights. The UK is unique in Europe in not having a written constitution. Post-Brexit, we will be the only country in Europe where politicians will be free to remove and diminish hard-won rights, especially for women and minority groups.

Many employment and social protection rights are derived from the EU treaties and directives, as interpreted by the case-law of the European court of justice. For example, equal pay for work of equal value, parental leave, anti-harassment laws, properly paid holiday rights, working time and important features of our anti-discrimination provisions, including on pregnancy and maternity, have been introduced or substantially developed by the EU.

The importance of equality and social protections is being lost in the wrangles over customs and trade. Theresa May has already promised to leave the EU charter of fundamental rights with no British replacement lined up to ensure we don’t lose almost 50 years of protection.

Let’s not forget that marriage bars existed in some workplaces until the 1940s. Some of our grandmothers had to resign from their teaching jobs when they tied the knot. More recently, a woman could be dismissed for pregnancy. It was argued that this was not discrimination on the basis of sex, because a man could be dismissed for long-term illness. Now, it is illegal to choose a woman who is not pregnant over a pregnant woman when the pregnant woman is better qualified. Any disfavouring of a person because of pregnancy is direct sex discrimination.

These are huge developments – and they are grounded in EU treaty rights. No state can remove or diminish them. Poland will try. Hungary will try. But as long as they are members of the EU, they will fail.

Once the EU treaties and the charter of fundamental rights, with which all EU law and EU-derived law must comply, are removed from UK law, there will be nothing to stop politicians from diminishing rights that have taken many years to win, in a race to the bottom when it comes to employment practices. Indeed, some may be motivated by the power Brexit will give them to do this.

Even if the rights and protections we currently have are automatically absorbed into UK law by the withdrawal bill (and that is not the case because the government has removed the application of the charter of fundamental rights), parliament can in the future remove and diminish these protections.

The real risk to people from all walks of life of losing hard-won rights needs to be understood. This is why we believe people must be given the chance to vote on the final deal.


Nina de Ayala Parker, Gina Miller, Rupa Huq MP, Caroline Lucas MP, Tulip Siddiq MP, Layla Moran MP, Rushanara Ali MP, Alison McGovern MP and many more (see original list in the Guardian)


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