Almost two years after the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (EU) was announced, Brexit continues to monopolize the headlines and debates, while other problems of great importance to the British people are relegated to second place.
Focused on negotiations and disagreements with the EU, politicians and the media are diverting their attention away from the needs of the poorest workers and Britons who in turn are expressing their concern regarding current problems and the possible worsening of these in the immediate future.
According to the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, ‘February was the tenth consecutive month in which real wages fell and the standard of living increased, which is pushing many families into the abyss.’ For its part, a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicated that more than 14 million people are living in poverty in the UK, including eight million adults, four million children and 1.9 million senior citizens.
After two years of continuous decline, the number of unemployed in the UK increased to 1,470,000 during the last quarter of 2017 which represents 4.4 % of people of working age.
In September of last year, 1,424,000 people were out of work, one of the lowest levels of unemployment the country has seen since the 70s.
However, from October to the end of December, 46,000 were added to the list of those without contracts of any kind and, according to the Office for National Statistics, those under 24 are most affected by this.
Moreover, in recent years, more than 900,000 Britons were forced to accept ‘zero hours’ contracts that do not provide stability for employees and undermine their rights.
This form of employment favoured by employers as a way of avoiding a series of obligations affects in particular single parents whose children are more likely to end up living in poverty according to non-governmental organizations.
In addition, on February 22 hundreds of academics from more than 60 British universities initiated a strike against reform of the pensions system, action that will last until March 16 and is supported by part of the student population.
According to the University and College Union (UCU), the demonstration is being organized to condemn cuts and changes in the pension contributions scheme which will have negative consequences on pensions as it means a reduction of around ten thousand pounds per year for each academic.
The leader of UCU, Sally Hunt, pointed out that the protests were called because the managers of higher education establishments refused to talk to those affected by the measure.
Likewise, hundreds of doctors, nurses and activists marched on February 3 in London to demand greater assistance from the government regarding the crisis faced by the NHS.
A month earlier, workers at 68 hospitals had expressed concern over cuts in the sector and deplored the death of patients in overcrowded emergency rooms in a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May.
The letter, divulged by the local press, warned that hundreds of seriously ill patients are having to wait in corridors for lack of facilities and staff, and many of them are dying as a result.
The letter states that patients are having to wait more than 10 hours to be seen and on many occasions, they are forced to stay in ambulances or spend the night in makeshift wards.
In view of the situation, experts asked the prime minister for greater investment in the sector, a study on the quantity/state of emergency rooms and an improvement in strategy to avoid this type of problem.
Added to the difficulties faced by employees and the poorest sectors of the country is the instability brought about by the process of leaving the EU and its possible consequences for the domestic economy.
Recently the European negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier, said that there are still important differences with London on fundamental aspects of the separation: after this, analysts and media speculated on the complexity of the second phase of negotiations.
In mid-December of last year, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, warned that this phase will be a ‘feverish race against time’ and insisted that ‘the most difficult challenge is yet to come.’ In accordance with the planned schedule, a definitive treaty on the United Kingdom’s departure must be ready by September 2018 and such a departure would take place on March 29, 2019, at 23:00 local time.
In a statement posted on its website, the TUC criticized the management of this process by the prime minister and warned about the dangers of leaving the EU arena without reaching an agreement with Brussels.
Leaving the EU without a plan puts many workers at risk, as it may mean the loss of guarantees and thousands of jobs which rely upon commercial relations within the union. Abandoning the group of 28 without an agreement would bring great instability, warned the organization, which is composed of about six million people.
“We British decided to separate from the EU in the 2016 referendum, but we did not choose to place our jobs at risk. The mismanagement of Brexit by the Government may lead to this,” he added.
In addition, it expressed concern on the part of its members about the possible violation of the rights of other Europeans established in the country and of British citizens residing in other EU states.
The TUC also highlighted the importance of a transition period that allows Britain to adapt to the new set up, an issue which is at the heart of debates between London and Brussels and has caused several clashes between both sides. May and her cabinet guaranteed that they will protect workers and the population in general after the departure of the UK in 2019, but they do not want to convert these promises into unbreakable guarantees, the TUC’s statement points out.
Even though the real impact of Brexit is unknown, uncertainty is prevalent across several sectors of British society, due also to the lack of clarity concerning the direction being taken by the country which is refusing to publish full reports on the real consequences of Brexit.
The governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney indicated that household income in the United Kingdom will decrease by five percent this year because of the separation process.
In addition, a study conducted by Cambridge Econometrics for the office of the Mayor of London concluded that leaving the EU would cost Britain more than half a million jobs and 64 billion dollars in investments during the period from 2019 to 2030. In addition to all of this are the obstacles faced by May and the increase in internal divisions within her party which could lead to her abandoning her post.
According to analysts, the current problems along with the austerity measures implemented by the conservatives over almost two decades of being in charge and the repercussions of Brexit combine to form a dangerous recipe with very serious consequences for employees and the poorest members of society for whom the future does not augur well. (PL)
(Translated by Nigel Conibear – DipTrans IoLET MCIL – firstname.lastname@example.org)