New war of words over working time opt-out

Dec 09 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

As European Commission prepares to publish a review of the operation of the working Working Time Directive in the UK, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber has presented a dossier to EU Social Affairs Commissioner, Anna Diamantopoulou, demanding that the Commission toughens up working time rights.

The dossier urges an end to the UK’s opt-out from the Directive that allows employees to sign away their right to work no more than 48 hours a week on average, tougher enforcement of working time rights and an end to the UK counting bank holidays against Europe’s four weeks minimum paid holiday rights.

Earlier this month, the TUC released an unpublished European Union research report revealing widespread abuse of the Directive in the UK.

While the report, commissioned from three Cambridge University academics, surveyed only 13 employers, it nevertheless revealed widespread abuse including compulsory signing of opt-outs, pressure on staff to sign opt-outs, workplaces where the law is ignored and staff illegally asked to opt out of their rights to rest breaks and night work limits.

The TUC dossier claims that lax enforcement and the individual opt-out means that the Directive has had minimal effect in the UK.

UK full timers work the longest hours in Europe, with just under four million UK workers still working more than 48 hours a week and more than half a million working 60 hours - the equivalent of seven and a half eight-hour days a week.

The opt-out was granted on the basis that employees must be given real choice about whether to sign away their working time rights. But one in three who have signed say they were given no choice, and two out of three who work more than 48 hours a week have not been asked to sign. This lack of enforcement means that workers are given no effective choice, say the TUC.

But according to Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), "the TUC is painting a distorted picture of UK working hours".

"It has failed to find evidence that there is widespread abuse of the opt-out,” she said. “People should have the right to say no to long hours and the directive rightly gives them that protection, but they should also have the right to say yes.

"Employees do not want the unions or politicians telling them when they can work or for how long. That is a decision for them, not the nanny state."

But many of those who work long hours would disagree. The official Labour Force Survey has found that four out of five of those who work more than 48 hours and four out of five mothers whose partner works more than 48 hours a week say they would like to work fewer hours.

HR professionals are also sceptical about the opt-out. A recent survey by consultants Croner found that more than six out of ten thought that it should be abolished.

Meanwhile, the message from Brendan Barber is blunt. “It's about time the European Union made sure that its working time rules made a difference in the UK,” he said.