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How is Brexit Affecting Workplaces? An Interview with GMB’s Neil Foster

Brexit negotiations are permanently making headlines, but what will be the impact of leaving the EU on workers? We caught up with Neil Foster, GMB National Research and Policy Officer and member of the CLASS Management Committee, about the impact Brexit is already having in workplaces and what unions are doing to protect their members.

According to your members, what impact is Brexit already having on workplaces?

For a good number of our members, the referendum hasn’t yet made a difference to their jobs, although it will do as we get closer to Britain’s departure from the EU. However, there is a significant portion of our membership who have already noticed quite a few changes since the referendum alone. The majority of those changes are negative, and the word that comes up time and time again is uncertainty - uncertainty in terms of their jobs, the future, the consequences of falling value of sterling, where companies are owned abroad, and the terms and conditions of their employment. We’ve heard a few examples from members of employers saying: “We can’t meet your pay demand or give you an above inflation pay raise because of Brexit”, or “The bonus you previously received at Christmas will be smaller this year because of Brexit”. Some of it will be employers trying to respond to uncertainty, and some will be cynical opportunism - but either way we won't stand for it.

These negative changes can’t simply be put down to the outcome of the referendum, however - a great deal of it comes from a lack of action from government to shore up confidence amongst both workers and employers following the referendum.

The GMB also has members who are migrant workers from the EU, who don't just feel uncertain about their work, but also about their residency in the UK. These workers are facing a double whammy, and we unreservedly support those who are already here and settled in the UK to stay, contribute and have equal rights. Neither should we forget those Brits working in other EU countries right now - their rights matter a great deal too.

Are there any sectors that seem to be more affected? How?

Some of the sectors that are most at risk include those with longer supply lines that zig-zag across different countries from the UK to the rest of the EU. There are so many companies that import and export components, ingredients and services, and that’s why remaining in the customs union is essential for so many businesses. For those workers in Northern Ireland, these factors are even more acute - it's not just businesses in Northern Ireland that work closely with those in the Republic of Ireland, but the 30,000 working people who commute across the Irish border every day. The peace process had an economic dimension and this cannot be eroded.

The falling value of pound and how this is already impacting private sector businesses isn’t being commented on by politicians nearly as much as it should. The potential upside of the falling value of sterling hasn’t materialised to the extent some had hoped, while the downside has been felt quite acutely. There’s a real danger that increased costs will result in companies squeezing the terms and conditions of their workers rather than increasing prices for customers. We at GMB are very clear that workers shouldn’t pay the price for what is essentially a failure of the Conservative government to plan and respond to the referendum result.

Then there are the sectors which are currently reliant on EU citizens, including the food and manufacturing industries and the public sector. Our analysis of official figures shows there are 18 different UK sectors whose workforce includes at least 20% of EU workers. The government should have been urgently engaging with employers, unions and public bodies in each sector of the economy for the short and medium term, but they have shown no interest in this whatsoever. Their ideology is not to intervene when the reality says this is common sense.

Even before Brexit, the Tories were completely incapable and unwilling to engage in workforce planning strategies - sitting down with employers and workers and their unions to discuss how to ensure we’ve got the people and the skills we require to keep our economy going. Businesses are increasingly alarmed as we inch towards departure from the EU that they aren’t going to have the people and the skills they need. From our point of view, there’s the short term issue of ensuring whole industries don’t collapse, but also the long term issue of a lack of skills development in the UK due to a lack of willingness from many employers and government to pay for it. Changes to freedom of movement will only make skills and workforce planning even more essential to the UK, but it should have been happening regardless of the referendum.

What’s the general mood among members about Brexit?

As GMB is broadly representative of a good proportion of the working public, the mood among our members with regard to Brexit is different across different sectors, regions, nations, cities and towns across the UK. There is, however, a growing fear shared by both Leave and Remain voters that the deal the Tories will secure will be a bad deal, due to a combination of their incompetency when it comes to the negotiations and their political motivations (which aren’t putting the interests of working people first). We've got to find ways of focusing on the deal while respecting the outcome of the referendum.

What is GMB doing to protect jobs and its members?

The most important thing is to make Brexit a workplace issue and not just a political issue - making sure that Brexit is being discussed in the workplaces with management. There’s a danger that because it’s a sensitive political issue that nobody really talks about it, when privately a good number of members are very concerned. We want this to be an issue trade unions put on the industrial agenda with employers so that employers aren’t making decisions and assumptions about what their companies should do without engaging with workers and hearing what their concerns are too.

Politically, we’ve be putting pressure on the government to reveal its risk assessments - what they see as the potential risks of the plan they’re pursuing to different sectors and different regions, including leaving the single market and the customs union. We think it’s absolutely essential the public get to see what information the government is seeing in terms of what the consequences of their particular Brexit plans could be, such as how many jobs could be affected, how different regions might be affected, and what this might mean for tax revenue. There could be some benefits but the government isn't demonstrating that and the fact that they want to keep their impact studies to themselves suggests to us that they know there could be some real concerns. The government has talked about industrial strategy, but if they are not going to work properly with all sides of industry right now at this key economic crossroads, then when are they ever going to? We are also working with our parliamentary group of MPs to ask questions in the Commons and the Lords to expose the shortcomings of the government's approach and raise the issues that worry members. GMB will use every avenue at our disposal to defend members' jobs, whether it’s working with trade federations on trade remedy policy, or through our existing relationships within Europe.

Theresa May wants to define Brexit in the way that suits the priorities of the Tories, but people’s reasons for voting Leave were much more diverse than these priorities - a big part of it was a vote against the whole status quo. A lot of people who voted Leave did so with some anti-austerity motives too. The government isn’t ever going to be interested in improving housing and the quality of public services, but it’s essential that we pursue this on behalf of the people. We shouldn’t just shrug off the commitment to £350m for public services including NHS, for example. You've got senior cabinet ministers at the top of government who used this to persuade enough voters to win the referendum, and they cannot be allowed to wriggle out of it now - especially when our public services are desperately underfunded.

A broader thing that we want to do is to tell the stories our members, whichever way they voted. We reject the caricature that working class people didn’t know what they were voting for, or that they were duped. People had a lot more sophisticated discussions than are widely being presented. Some members have literally seen the undercutting of terms and conditions in their workplaces by unscrupulous employers, so to have others simply say there’s no evidence of any kind of downward pressure on terms, conditions and job security is to dismiss many workers’ real lived experiences. We will stand up for all our members, and strive to achieve outcomes that improve the quality of work for all. Freedom of movement is a thorny issue, and we are interested in the idea of 'fair movement of labour', but whatever happens on that front we will never tolerate discrimination, racism and xenophobia at work or in society as a whole. Everyone deserves dignity and respect, and this is something which workplace reps can play a leadership role on. It is in the interests of cynical employers to divide and rule the workforce, and we want all workers to be part of our union and tackle unfairness or exploitation whenever it takes place.