A Selfish Feminist's View on the Brexit


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A Selfish Feminist's View on the Brexit

The EU isn't perfect, but it's way better on women's rights than our disgraceful government.

Illustration by Ella Strickland De Souza

As the threat of Brexit grows larger, the reality of a Union Jack-clad parade of Conservatives chanting the national anthem and spitting quiche everywhere seems frighteningly possible, come the 24th of June. While the possibility of Lexit (that's a "left exit", not a new Dr Seuss book) burns bright in the hearts of some, the ability for the UK to remove itself from the EU in a progressive, anti-imperialist way has been discarded by most as a virtual impossibility.


Dominated by a rhetoric of anger and racism, and tapping into a nationwide disillusionment over cuts to healthcare and welfare, the majority of the movement for Brexit does not want stronger unions, demilitarisation or open borders. Instead, it's a knee-jerk, sickly nostalgic response to the diet of austerity we've been force-fed for the last six years. It's already a pretty miserable June, but the thought of rounding it out with the very bleak prospect of Michael Gove being our next Prime Minister really takes the biscuit.

Because I'm a woman and a selfish feminist, I care about how Brexit would affect women's rights in the UK. While there are many legitimate criticisms of the EU, its commitment to gender equality – one of its founding aims – is generally impressive. Outlined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is the prohibition of discrimination on any grounds, including sex (Article 21); and a recognition of the right to gender equality in all areas and the necessity of positive action for its promotion (Article 23). Do we really want to give this up?

Unfortunately, as with many things, I get that it's not as simple as saying the EU is great for women. Take maternity rights: current EU law guarantees a paltry 14 weeks of maternity leave compared to the UK's minimum of 52, a fact oft-cited by EU critics as an example of the UK being way more progressive than its neighbours. But if it's so bad, why has Cathy Warwick, CEO of the Royal College of Midwives, released a statement supporting the Remain campaign? Because of the EU guarantee of paid time off for pregnant women for ante-natal appointments and protection from dismissal by "unscrupulous bosses".


The additional legislated protection of workers' rights coming from the EU should absolutely not be taken for granted, nor dismissed as less progressive than UK law. I spoke to Nadine El-Enany, lecturer in law at Birkbeck Law School, who flagged up several specific instances in which the UK government opposed EU legislation drafted to protect the rights of workers. Take "the 2003 Working Time Directive", she says, "which the UK strongly opposed, and which sets out maximum work hours per week and grants rights for EU workers to a minimum number of holidays and rest periods".

The Working Time Directive is one of the things that Mike Ashley, scumbag billionaire founder of Sports Direct, is thought to have been in breach of when forcing workers to undergo hours of unpaid and compulsory weekly security searches. The fact that the UK government so strongly opposed it only aligns it with the attitudes of business owners so tyrannical that women give birth in bathroom stalls at their workplaces for fear of losing their jobs.

Still, the favoured anti-EU argument from critics on both left and right is that the UK is leading the rest of the EU in terms of progressive values. To them, fundamental values are so concrete in this country that Brexit could not put the rights of women, minorities or workers at risk. In an article for the Guardian, Labour MP Frank Field wrote: "From holiday pay to the minimum wage, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair didn't need European bureaucrats to impose [those rights] on us. Again and again, Britain's social rights have been world-beating. I'm absolutely confident that if any Tory government was foolish enough to attack our fundamental rights they would fail in their ambitions to gain support in the north of England and in the cities."


The Trade Union Congress, however, does not agree, publishing an extensive statement titled Women Workers' Rights and the Risk of Brexit in which it outlines multiple cases of retrogressive and discriminatory behaviour over decades at the hands of the UK.

In the late 1970s, the EU took the UK to the European Court of Justice over its refusal to amend the Equal Pay Act to include "equal pay for equal work". While the Act had already ensured women could not be paid less than men for doing the same job, equal pay for equal work was introduced to protect what were considered traditionally female jobs (cleaning; care work) from being undervalued where traditionally male jobs (grounds keeping; security) of a similar skill level had higher rates of pay. The EU secured a victory and equal pay for Equal Work remains crucial for the protection of women in the lower skilled labour market, 42 percent of whom are in part-time and care work as opposed to 12 percent of men. This – and the 300,000 equal pay claims filed over the past decade – prove these are most certainly not archaic pieces of legislation.

If you really want to know where the government stands on our rights, look no further than its attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act in 2015. As Nadine explains, if this is achieved it would "contribute significantly to the erosion of women's rights by limiting their ability to directly challenge human rights abuses in UK courts". EU or no EU we still have a Parliamentary cabinet packed with snakes, but the re-drafting of fundamental human rights law will seem far less controversial if we were an independent sovereign state.


As Zoe Gardner, spokesperson for Another Europe is Possible, a progressive, left-wing campaign to Remain, explains: "While the Human Rights Act might remain under threat if the UK stays in the European Union, we'll still be better protected than if we leave." She highlighted a "real need for transparency in the EU's decision making" but ultimately concluded that workers' rights and, by default, the rights of women, who "make up the vast majority of part-time workers", are much safer if we remain.

For many on the left, including myself, this vote has been far from easy to reconcile with personal values – particularly due to the EU's response to the refugee crisis. However, it's very clear that leaving would just hand more power to white men in suits intent on closing our borders. As George Monbiot wrote the other day: "The EU is a festering cesspool. But it's a crystal spring compared with what the outers want." Cesspool or not, the EU provides a framework of protection for women's rights that our disgraceful government would soon see burned to the ground. Let's ensure our voting slips don't add to the kindling.


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