A plethora of crises engulfed the economy in Britain last year. One of the most acute of these concerned labour shortages, especially amongst hospitality workers and Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV) drivers. Scotland was often affected as many other parts of Britain.

Much of these shortages has been attributed to the unfolding outcomes associated with Britain leaving the European Union (EU), albeit sometimes with added Covid pandemic complications. And, this would seem to confirm for many SNP supporters as well as more general advocates of Scottish independence the political and economic ineptitude of leaving the EU.

Their belief is that rejoining the EU once independence for Scotland is gained would resolve such problems in the labour market. This chimes with another part of their outlook: the EU, when compared with the current Conservative Westminster Government, is the standard bearer for progressive employment policies, including the freedom of movement for labour.

But are matters quite so simple and would Scotland as an independent state be so much a better place for workers’ rights?

There are three key aspects to approaching these issues. The first concerns recalling what the situation was before Britain left the EU on January 31 2020. The second concerns understanding the fundamental nature of the EU on employment matters. And, the last concerns the political nature of the SNP.

Many opponents of Brexit, especially in the union movement, exaggerated the positive impact of the EU in establishing or extending workers’ rights in Britain. Many rights existed before Britain joined the EU in January 1 1973 or were established independently of EU developments. More importantly, the EU itself only established a minimum floor, not a maximum ceiling, of rights which member states are required to demonstrate their national laws adhere to. This also allows for interpretation as EU directives become transmogrified into national regulations. Instances of new laws improving workers’ rights were then relatively infrequent.

Consequently, the rise of precarious work in the form of the likes of zero-hour contracts or the use of the “fire and re-hire” tactic took place well in advance of Britain leaving the EU. Indeed, lorry drivers’ terms and conditions were driven down as part of a competitive sub-contracting system. This has been true in other sub-contracted services like cleaning and security. Restrictions on the right to withdraw one’s labour before and after Thatcherism did not contradict the EU.

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And, as a result of the pandemic, the expected bonfire of regulations of employment rights has not yet materialised so workers’ rights have not plummeted following the Conservatives at Westminster gaining new found freedoms under Brexit. If the bonfire does materialise, this will have an important bearing upon support for Scotland rejoining the EU via independence. Whether the gap between Britain and the EU will also widen as a result of the EU raising the floor is doubtful in the short-term because of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Few suggested one impact of Brexit would be tightened labour markets with rising wage levels for some. Even despite the pandemic-induced disruption in labour markets, this is now happening in parts of the private sector with as much evidence of “golden hellos” and “golden handcuffs” as increased pensionable basic pay. For the time being, these increases do not yet take the affected workers back to where they should have been in real wage terms from a decade or more ago. Equally importantly, many other workers’ wage remain relatively stagnant, being unaffected by aforementioned labour shortages.

For how long will the demand and supply in these labour markets remain favourably out-of-kilter for some? The positive impact is unlikely to remain in the medium-term as labour markets re-order and re-align themselves after in response to the continuing pandemic. For example, more training for HGV licenses will make some difference as will drivers’ improved pay and conditions, so a levelling off will happen. In the longer-term, if Scotland was to rejoin the EU, renewed freedom of movement from the EU would likely see supply exceed demand in certain sectors. The effect on wages would be to halt any rise in their real value. Whether workers would freely be able to come from and go to south of the Border remains unclear.

The “elephant in the room” so far is the SNP. Under an independent Scotland, which the SNP would dominate for some time, employment and workers’ rights are unlikely to be its priority for two reasons. Excluding any issues of transferred national debt inducing austerity, one is the likely short-term birth pains of transition, disruption and re-adjustment of independence. The second is the long-term nature of the SNP. It is far more a party of business than it is a party of labour as suggested not only by its various recent economic treatises but also by its lacklustre measures to create a “fair work” nation by 2025. The force of these two aspects would come together in the SNP pledging to abide by EU minimum standards rather than go above them. The logic would be that a new state cannot afford to make its labour costs uncompetitive, otherwise investment will go elsewhere, thus, reducing the tax base for public expenditure.

It also has to be borne in mind that workers’ rights in the EU today are not what they once were. Thus, 2022 is a far cry from the EU in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was when its proposed “Social chapter” in the run up to the signing of the Maastricht Treaty did present a more credible alternative to the neo-liberal road that Britain was driving down. Since then, the EU has also been subject to the forces of neo-liberalism. The pro-business nature of the SNP precludes that it would decide that Scotland should not rejoin the EU in order to provide for a much-enhanced set of workers’ rights.

Until Labour becomes a more credible potential party of government and with a platform of enhanced workers’ rights, these employment and labour market matters and associated workers’ rights will remain stuck on the horns of a dilemma between a Scottish independence scenario and a feared bonfire of regulations under the Westminster Conservatives.


Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds.