The European Commission is on a collision course with the UK government after it announced that it was lunching a consultation exercise looking at the operation of working time rules across the EU with a view to ending the UK’s opt-out of the 48-hour week.
The UK negotiated an opt-out from the EU's working time directive in 1993. But the deal was contingent on workers formally agreeing to waive their right to work a maximum of 48-hours a week, no negative fall-out from refusing to opt out and that records are kept of the working hours of those that have opted out.
But the commission said that British workers are routinely asked to sign the opt-out agreement at the same time as signing their employment contract, an unequivocal sign that the job offer is contingent on them signing away their working time rights. "If the opt-out must be signed at the same time as the employment contract, freedom of choice is compromised by the worker's situation at that moment," the Commission added. Records of hours worked by those who have opted out were also not kept, the Commission said.
Last year it was revealed that the Commission had suppressed a report that revealed widespread abuse of the Working Time Directive in the UK 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.
More than one in six of the UK workforce works than 48 hours a week and over 1.5 million work more than 55 hours a week. Yet despite having the shortest holidays and the longest working hours in the EU, the UK has one of its lowest levels of GDP per head of the working population.
Despite the insistence of the UK government and employers groups that workers are not being bullied by employers, Anna Diamantopoulou, EU social affairs commissioner, appears to be taking an increasingly hard line against the opt-out.
"We appreciate the importance of freedom of choice of individuals as to how they work" she said, "but in practice the measures that the directive foresees to safeguard the workers' interests when opting out are not properly implemented.
"British workers ... want to work less hours. It is a real problem and a source of concern for the British labour market."
But the CBI’ Susan Anderson rejected the Commission’s argument. "We accept there must be safeguards to prevent abuse but the current legislation offers that,” she said.
"The Commission and the TUC have both failed to find evidence of widespread abuse. We do not believe that employers are routinely pressurising workers into signing opt-outs."
"People have the right to say 'no' to long hours and the directive rightly gives them that protection, but they must also have the right to say 'yes'."
However the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber reiterated his call for the opt-out to be scrapped. “We’ve had rules on working time for over five years but because of lax enforcement and the individual opt-out, UK workers still work the longest hours in Europe,” he said. "It's about time UK workers got the same protection against bullying bosses and long working days as workers do in the rest of Europe. Removing the individual opt-out would help signal the end of Britain's unhealthy long hours culture."