Over time, both the volume and complexity of employment law that originates in the EU has grown considerably.

When the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, membership brought with it few obligations in the field of employment regulation. The Treaty of Rome contained an article committing member states to enforce the principle of equal pay for equal work between men and women, but this was already in the process of being introduced in the UK at that time.

Later, as the European Economic Community evolved into the European Community and more recently into the European Union (EU), it has become more and more common for all member states to legislate in order to give effect to employment laws which originate at the European level and which apply across the whole EU.

As far as the UK is concerned, new EU labour law sometimes requires Parliament to amend existing laws in order to bring them into line with European requirements. On other occasions there has been an obligation to create entirely new employment rights which would not, in all likelihood, ever have been introduced in the UK was it not for its membership of the EU.

The scope of EU law in the employment field has expanded very considerably as many more areas become 'areas of European Competence' and therefore subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The first big expansion of ‘European Competence’ in the employment field came in 1992 as a result of the Single European Act which was agreed by all member governments in 1986. This paved the way for the introduction of health and safety regulations which seek to ensure that the same high standards of health and safety management are observed in all workplaces across the EU.

Later, following the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 with its Social Chapter, ‘European competence’ in the field of employment regulation has spread into several different areas. The UK signed up to the Social Chapter in 1997, since when a substantial proportion of new employment law with a European origin has been introduced.

The main areas of ‘European competence’ as far as employment law is concerned are now in the following areas:

  • health and safety
  • transfers of undertakings (that is rights that protect workers when the identity of their employer changes)
  • discrimination on grounds of sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation and religion/belief
  • working time
  • data protection
  • information and consultation
  • atypical workers (that is, part-timers, fixed-term employees and agency workers)
  • some family-friendly employment rights.

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