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Populist Politicians and Stingy Employers Can’t Wait for Brexit

Published date: June 2016


By Vivian Woodell

There's one particular piece of spin coming out of the Leave camp that particularly grates with me. It's the suggestion - repeated in some parts of the media - that smaller businesses are pro-Brexit, while larger firms and multinationals tend to favour staying in the EU.

While this mantra may be gaining traction, even the most pro-Leave poll carried out by TNS found only 37% of SMEs saying they would vote to quit, against 38% saying they would vote to stay. Most polls of small businesses show a big majority of support for remaining in the EU.

As Chief Executive of The Phone Co-op, a customer-owned co-operative providing mobile phones and telecoms services, I would put my organisation in the SME bracket.

However, I'm strongly pro-Remain. There are many reasons for this, which revolve around my core personal beliefs in co-operation, equality and fairness - values that I believe the EU embodies, and which the UK's membership helps to protect.

But in my working life, I've had first-hand experience of the benefits EU membership brings smaller companies here in the UK. For the past few years, for instance, we've partnered with the Dutch social enterprise Fairphone as the exclusive retailer of its ethically-produced smartphones.

To date, we've sold nearly 3,000 of their phones to customers in the UK.

This is, of course, a commercial relationship, but it goes much deeper than that. Our partnership with Fairphone is first and foremost built around shared values. The concept behind the phone is that, by taking care to source the metals used to make the phone's components from conflict-free mines in Africa and working with responsible manufacturers in China, we can produce a smartphone that puts people first, at every stage in the supply chain, and in that way set an example - however small - for the rest of the electronics industry.

The EU has made our collaboration with Fairphone easier in lots of ways. From ease of travel to meetings, to a lack of tariffs on imports, all of which make trading with an organisation in the EU as simple as trading within the UK. The European Union has also been a strong supporter of the kind of recycling initiatives Fairphone has championed.

I also get a real bee in my bonnet over the suggestion that being in the EU leaves British companies hamstrung by 'red tape'. This just simply isn't true.

Of course, there are common rules in place to make sure that everyone operating within the Single Market is doing so on a level playing field. But isn't that just what you'd expect? Would it be fair, for example, if farmers in France didn't have to adhere to the same animal welfare standards as those in Ireland, the UK or Germany? Or if our cars and energy producers weren't bound by the same commitments to reducing carbon emissions? And of course the EU has worked hard to create common minimum standards to prevent a race to the bottom when it comes to working conditions for people across Europe.

A question I like to ask back is: what of this 'red tape' would you actually like to cut? To my mind, for some of the Leave campaign's luminaries it probably boils down to things like sick pay, maternity leave, working hours protections and pensions contributions.

For the Mike Ashleys of this world, that might well sound like music to the ears. But I think I speak for most reasonable people when I say that I for one don't want to live in a country that treats people simply as worker ants whose lot in life is to be exploited and pushed around.

For us, the Fairphone is a physical embodiment of a way of approaching business that we at The Phone Co-op fully subscribe to - specifically, that business shouldn't just be about making money, but needs a social and ethical dimension too.

"I think I speak for most reasonable people when I say that I for one don't want to live in a country that treats people simply as worker ants whose lot in life is to be exploited and pushed around."

Indeed, we've already had a foretaste of how some businesses may choose to act once 'free' from 'EU interference' following the announcement of the government's National Living Wage earlier this year. Cue excuses for cutting overtime pay and the meagre perks some workers still received.

Most small businesses I come into contact with recognise the effect that treating employees well has on their commitment and motivation. Most enlightened employers understand that if people are respected at work, they will put in a lot more effort, which is to the benefit of everyone.

That's why at the Phone Co-op, we're a Living Wage employer (as set by the Living Wage Foundation) and offer our staff extras such as free bikes, £100 annually towards a non-work related course, 11% pension contributions (with no requirement for employees to pay in to get that), and an annual staff profit share that's divided equally between all employees based on hours worked.

For me, the EU isn't just a facilitator of business - though it is certainly that too. Much more important, in my opinion, is the outlook on the world it expresses. For the past 40 years, we've worked with our closest neighbours to define an approach to commerce and work that's fair to employees and seeks to protect people from the worst excesses of irresponsible capitalism. That's something to be proud of.

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