IssueOctober - November 2018
Comment by Claire Poyner

Gender equality is one issue that doesn’t come up much when we’re talking Brexit. OK, fair enough, women’s equality is not nearly as important as trade deals and immigration, seeing as women are only 51 percent of the population.

OK, so how would, could, Brexit affect women? Well, for one, EU laws aim to protect maternity (and paternity) leave and seek to prevent discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.

Also, rights for part-time, casual and agency workers (mainly women) are better protected under EU law.

Equal pay for equal work is written into EU legislation, and many protections for vulnerable women currently in place in the UK come from the EU.

Assuming Brexit does happen, we need to ensure these rights continue. Can we rely on our current Brexit negotiators to guarantee these protections? Can we rely on the UK government to keep in place laws which, some believe, were ‘forced on us’ by the EU? Is there a danger that people who hate the EU and everything it does, even if it’s the right thing (such as banning the import of ivory, which Nigel Farage famously voted against, just because it’s the EU), will not want to implement similar laws to replace the EU legislation?

EU nationals are already leaving the UK, including many NHS and care workers. This will leave a lot of care work to the families of elderly and disabled people, which more often than not falls upon the women of the family. If standards of care fall, this will affect women more than men as there are more elderly women than men. Post-Brexit, all this can only get worse.

The Great Repeal Bill, a new piece of legislation to ensure EU law no longer applies in the UK, will be pushed through soon. This will allow the UK to remove ‘unnecessary legislation’ of EU origin, without scrutiny.

Some potentially ‘unnecessary’ legislation includes: ensuring that part-time workers are paid the same per hour as full-time workers in the same job. 42 percent of women work part-time – for a longer than men.

In the past, a pregnant woman would have needed to compare herself to a man in the same job to prove discrimination. EU laws no longer require this. Also a pregnant woman cannot be forced to work night shifts.

Those fleeing domestic violence across borders within the EU can have a European Protection Order (restraining order), which is recognised across the EU. We do not know if this will continue to protect women in the UK.

In the event of Brexit, maintaining and strengthening these rights is vital. Abolition of upfront fees for employment tribunals would be a great step to demonstrate that leaving the EU does not mean rogue employers can begin (or continue) to discriminate against their employees on the grounds of sex.

The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, held a ‘Sex Discrimination Law Review’ to defend legislative protections for women in the face of Brexit. It also charted a course for the future by setting a progressive agenda for women’s rights in the UK.

The review’s report recommends changes to the legal system, including strengthening the laws on sexual harassment and discrimination at work, and on preventing violence against women and girls.

In the meantime, we must fight to get a vote on the final deal to safeguard our rights. Note: I have focussed on EU laws particularly affecting women. There are many other EU laws which may end up on the scrap heap: protecting the environment; restricting landfill and boosting recycling; promoting food safety, animal protection, consumer protection, product safety, and food labelling; banning growth hormones; and more. Oh, and banning the import of ivory. (Why do you hate elephants, Nigel?)

Topics: Gender
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