LONDON • Britain's major trade unions have finally come out in support of the European Union (EU), judging that fears of an economic fallout after the so-called "Brexit" outweigh concerns over the bloc's faults in promoting workers' rights.
Unions have kept a low profile amid the strident back-and-forth between supporters of the EU and those wanting to leave, in contrast to big business, which has come out strongly in favour of remaining. Some in Britain's workforce fear cheap labour from eastern European nations is undercutting wages.
But with the looming June 23 vote on whether Britain should stay in or leave the EU, its leading unions have broken their silence.
"To date, the debate about our membership of the EU has been dominated by business, but today I want to change the tone and set out why working people should vote to remain," Ms Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said last week.
It claimed in a recent report that an "average" British worker would suffer a wage cut of about £38 (S$75) per week because of the negative economic consequences of Brexit.
Ten trade union leaders on Monday urged their members to vote to stay in the EU, warning in a letter to The Guardian newspaper that a Brexit would threaten workers' rights. "After much debate and deliberation we believe that the social and cultural benefits of remaining in the EU far outweigh any advantages of leaving," stated the letter.
Four million of Britain's six million TUC-affiliated workers are represented by unions in favour of remaining. Other unions representing around two million workers are still to declare, and about 100,000 workers are represented by unions in favour of leaving.
According to two opinion polls released on Monday, the referendum result remains too close to call. The ORB poll for the Daily Telegraph, surveying 800 people, showed the "In" camp at 48 per cent, compared with 47 per cent intending to vote "Leave".
For the workers themselves, the message is mixed. "They are both fighting each other saying you'll lose your jobs and somebody else says no, you won't lose your jobs," said Mr Terry Hanby, a steelworker for 34 years. "Where do you go from there?"
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG