Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

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The EU is a strong friend to women at work - How the EU has backed women's rights at work


Speaking at Lloyds of London today I argued that Britain’s women are stronger, safer and better off thanks to British membership of the EU. And said that leaving would put women’s rights and jobs at risk.
Click here to read the report on how the EU has advanced women's rights.
Important work in the financial services industry

Thank you so much for letting me come and talk to you today about women at work and the European Union.

You work here in the financial services industry, an industry which is crucially important to the economy of this country and for the employment of women.

Financial services generate over £126 billion for our economy every year and half a million women work in it. Not just here in London but in Leeds, Edinburgh, Bristol and throughout the country.

The work that you do in financial services powers that industry and provides the income for hundreds of thousands of households.

Your work is important to this sector and I know that it's also important to you and your family. The fact of the matter is that there are few households, and no regions and no sectors which could manage without women's work. Our work is vital to household budgets and to our economy. The workforce is now women and men. But despite that we are still not equal at work or at home. We've made great strides at work, and you can see that with women's earning power increasing. But the higher up you get in any workplace the fewer women there are. And there is still not equal sharing of family responsibilities - whether it be for bringing up children or caring for the elderly or disabled. Though men are doing more at home, in the overwhelming majority of households, the responsibility still rests firmly with women.

So the rights and protections that we have at work remain important- the right to be paid equally, not to be discriminated against, not to be harassed, not to be oppressed because you're a part-timer, a right to return to work after having a baby, to have a right to take time off to go to ante-natal appointments, the right for fathers to have time off when their children are young.

One of the great social changes over the last 30 years has been the progress that women have made. Women now have equal educational qualifications to men and expect to be able to work on equal terms with men in whatever field they choose. Womens’ attitudes have changed - we're no longer prepared to put up with being second-class citizens.

This is a huge, and quite recent change. When I first started work there was no right to equal pay - job adverts showed the woman's rate and the man's rate for the same job. Employers could and did advertise jobs for men, which women couldn't apply for. And when you got pregnant you usually kept it secret to try and keep your job for as long as possible. When you left work to have a baby your job went. You had to apply to go back to work like a new employee - even to your old job. Most women worked part-time and were completely the poor relations at work - not allowed to be in the workplace pension scheme, first to be made redundant, and denied access to training and promotion.

For women starting out in 2016 rather than in the 1970s when I started work, all this might seem positively prehistoric. But remember that the changes that we achieved didn't come through hoping something would turn up - but through action.

The women's movement saw women demanding change - prepared to fight against the government, employers and even their own trade unions to assert their rights to work and be equal at work with laws to back them up. And that is what has happened year on year over the decades. And the EU has been a massive ally in this process.

People undecided on the EU

You may have seen the opinion polls on the EU referendum which will be on June 23rd. The latest show that 42% are for staying and 40% are for leaving. But I've met so many people who are undecided, who haven't made up their mind, who want further information and are still thinking about it. And twice as many women as men haven't yet decided how to vote in the referendum.

Change in women's lives

It doesn't help anyone make up their mind to see men shouting at each other. So, rather than joint them, I want to bring some facts into the debate.

It's easy to overlook, but it’s impossible to overstate, how important the EU has been in our struggle for women's rights at work. Some of our rights came directly from the EU, some rights were enhanced because of the EU and our rights as women at work can't be taken away, as they are guaranteed by our membership of the EU.

This is a paradox because the EU is every bit as woefully male-dominated as our own political institutions. But despite that, the historical fact is that the EU has led and strengthened our rights as women at work in this country. And we should never take that for granted. Faceless bureaucrats they may be - but the EU has been a strong friend to British women at work.

The rights that we now have at work did not just arrive out of thin air. They came from a combination of what our governments have done and what the EU has made them do. I would rather we got all of our rights from our own government. Half the population are women and we are a democracy - it doesn't seem too much to ask for our own government to back us up. It feels odd to get legal rights handed to us from Brussels rather than from Westminster. But if it's a case of having them coming from Brussels or not at all, let's not be in any doubt that wherever they come from, these rights are essential for women’s progress in their lives. No government likes a Directive - let alone from abroad - telling them what to do or a Court - and God forbid a foreign court - forcing them to make changes. But EU Directives and European Court judgments have been making our government back women up at work. So if it comes to a choice between Directives or fewer protections for women at work - I'll take the Directives any day.

I want Brussels to be there to guarantee these rights. I don't want our government to have the "sovereignty" to take away those rights. Over the years we fought for those rights and they should be there for you now.

For most people, what goes on in Parliament is baffling enough, let alone understanding the complex interplay of our Parliament and Brussels. But when people come to vote about whether to stay or leave Europe, it's important for them to know what Europe has done which has made a difference to their lives. The language might be impenetrable and the institutions baffling, but the fact is that the EU has been a strong friend to women at work.

Let me explain specifically about women's rights at work. And these are facts here - not spin, not conjecture, not predictions - plain facts. And although this goes back some decades, it's not "historical" because I was there fighting for those rights, for the progress which was hard won, inch by inch, and these rights are still important for you now and I don't want to see them threatened by our leaving the EU.

Women's pay

Take equal pay for women. The founding treaty of the EU, the Treaty of Rome which everyone has to sign up to when they join the EU, requires that women should be paid equally and get equal treatment. When we signed up to the EU in 1973 that was a right that all women in this country got.

In 1970 the Equal Pay Act came into force and said that you could get equal pay but only if there was a man doing the same job that you could compare with. Because we were in the EU our government was required, in 1976, to extend that to where women were doing work which was not the same as a man but where they could show their work was of "equal value". This gave hundreds of thousands of women better pay. Like the women at Ford, who in 1984 got a pay increase claiming their work as machinists was of equal value to the higher paid men.

Like low paid women council cleaners who claimed the same pay and bonuses as the higher paid men in refuse collection. I was there in Cabinet Committees when my colleagues gnashed their teeth at the European Court for telling our councils that the agreement they'd reached with the unions would have to be changed. They said it wasn't the right time for the women to get the same pay as the men. But it's never "the right time" for government or employers to be able to afford equality for women. And this is not a luxury, its basic fairness.

Equality for part-timers

Take the situation for part-timers. Our Equal Pay Act covered pay, but didn't cover pensions - nor did the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. Most part-timers were women - they still are. And part-timers were excluded from companies' workplace pension schemes, making certain that women would be worse off in retirement than men. In 1986, an EU ruling said that excluding part-timers from occupational pension schemes was sex discrimination, that pensions were "deferred pay" and should be covered by the Equal Pay Act. This meant that hundreds of thousands of part-time women got access to pension schemes for the first time, and part-timers were still protected.

Getting pregnant

The EU is full of guarantees for working women as we have our babies. The EU guarantees that women have to get some maternity pay. The 1992 Pregnant Workers Directive required that women who were off work on maternity leave had to be paid an "adequate allowance" not less than sick pay.

Going back to work

The EU guarantees that women have a right to return to work after they've had a baby. The Pregnant Workers Directive guarantees women at least 14 weeks’ maternity leave and a right to return to their old job. Our government gives women more than that - extending maternity leave to a year - but the EU Directive guarantees that women can never have their right to return to work abolished.

New rights for fathers

The EU gave, for the first time, a right to fathers to take time off when they have a baby. In 1996 the EU issued the Parental Leave Directive which requires EU members to give fathers as well as mothers four months leave in the first eight years of their child's life. This was the first time fathers got rights in law and that's important not just for the child and the father, but also for the mother.

EU Directives and court rulings mean that our government has to ensure that employers give women time off work to go to ante-natal appointments. They have to protect breast-feeding women, and they have to give parents a right to time off for urgent family reasons - like a child falling ill.

Tackling harassment at work

The EU has waded in against sexual harassment at work. The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal for a woman to be harassed at work. And that can't be repealed because it's guaranteed by the 2006 EU Equal Opportunities Directive which ruled that sexual harassment is unlawful discrimination

"Those rights are now secure"

We fought hard for those rights, in Brussels and in Westminster. That's a fact. If we leave the EU, the guarantees of those rights will be gone. That's a fact too.

Some people will say, “OK the EU helped us to get those rights, and guaranteed them, but we don't need Europe anymore because those rights are accepted by everyone now. We don't need the guarantee anymore."

Would that it were the case that everyone now agrees that women's rights at work are paramount. But they don't.

Every time any new right for women has been introduced, whether it's come from Westminster, our courts, or Brussels - it's been bitterly opposed. There was opposition to the Equal Pay and the Sex Discrimination Acts. The Tories voted against the Equality Act as recently as 2010. In the past, even unions opposed equal rights for their part-timer women members. The CBI and the Chambers of Commerce oppose new rights. Even the Labour government which I was part of complained about European Court of Justice rulings on women's rights. It's naive to suppose that everyone now suddenly agrees with them. Women's rights are in the firing line whenever there's a call for deregulation or "cutting red tape". Bright ideas pop up to give businesses "greater freedom" in this sector or that region. Right now, though few will say they oppose women's rights, given half the chance, the covert hostility to these rights would soon rear its ugly head. They argue that it's about saving government money or cutting red tape on business, but women's rights would be sacrificed.

And why should we trust the likes of Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan-Smith or Nigel Farage with our rights as women? And even if they say they'd guarantee not to go below the rights for women that the EU guarantees, I don't trust them as far as I can throw them. It's your rights which are at stake here - so nor should you.

We need more rights for women - not fewer

Instead of fighting to stop us going backwards, we should be pressing for more rights for women at work. I want to see the laws on preventing discrimination against older women brought into force. I want to see rights for carers to take time off. I want to see mothers able to share their maternity leave with the child's grandparents as they can now share their maternity leave with the child's father. I want maternity leave to be longer and maternity pay to be better.

We've made huge progress over the years but we are still far from equal. The last thing we need now is to have to fight to defend and protect the rights we've already got. But that is what would happen if we left the EU. We've got used to being able to rely on the EU to underpin those rights. Let’s not take them for granted and find that we have to fight for them all over again. We need our energy to be going forward, not to prevent ourselves going backwards.

So if you think it's important that women at work have rights at work, to equal pay, to opportunity, as parents, stand up for those rights and vote to stay in the EU. Don't be complacent about those rights. Protect them by voting to stay in

Jobs as well as rights

It's not just your rights at work which Europe is important for, it’s also those jobs themselves.

Women are now working in every sector, in every region. Those sectors are bolstered by our membership of the EU because the EU helps our economy generally. It’s our biggest trading partner, with EU countries buying nearly half of everything we sell abroad.

We're here in the City of London at the heart of our financial services sector. If you look at the people at the top of financial services, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's all men. But that is far from the case. Half a million women work in financial services - women like you who work hard, do well and are ambitious - and 41% of those financial services we sell abroad go to Europe. If we weren't in the EU, Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin would be looking to hoover up those jobs. A study by City Link and PWC estimates that around 50,000 women working in financial services would lose their jobs if we left the EU.

And what about other sectors where women work?

Over half of the chemicals and pharmaceuticals we export go to Europe. Over half our food exports go to the EU. What would happen to the 1 million jobs of women who work in that sector if we leave?

Many reasons to stay in EU

My decision to vote to remain is based on a whole range of issues:

*Jobs and investment.
*UK influence in Europe.
*UK influence through the EU in the rest of the world.
*The EU as a body of countries committed to human rights.

And my general belief that it's best to look forward and outward rather than backward and inward - especially in a globalised world.

Opting out for a quiet life was never a way to make progress on anything. And outside the EU it wouldn't be a quiet life but one of frustration and ineffectiveness. A quick adrenalin boost of "going it alone" followed by long endurance of problems and marginalisation leaving us as a weaker, poorer country.

I think we should have the confidence to recognise that we make a big impact in the EU. Why wouldn't we want to continue to do that when they are our nearest neighbours and our biggest trading partners? Our history has been about being a leading country in Europe, not cutting and running.


Over the last few decades there's been a transformation in women's lives, with women going out to work as well as caring for children and elderly. Regarding ourselves as equal citizens whose contribution in the world outside the home is important and should not be undervalued.

Over the last three decades (when I've been an MP) we've struggled to make our way forward towards equality at work. The objective fact is that through those decades the EU has been a friend to women in this country. Let's stick with them and let's work to make further progress.



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