In the latest twist in the game of cat-and-mouse being played around the EU Working Time Directive, the European Commission has given its strongest indication yet that it is considering ending Britain's opt-out from EU limits on working hours.
Europe’s new employment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, said the current arrangement, exempting UK workers from the maximum 48 hour week, should at least be tightened up to halt abuses, if not phased out completely.
Dimas called on unions and employers across Europe to negotiate an update of the 10-year-old Working Time Directive, warning that the Commission would produce its own revised proposals if agreement could not be reached.
Dimas said that the "social partners" have nine months to renegotiate the regulations. During this period, further formal recommendations for reform will be presented to the Commission, which are expected to form the basis of new legislation.
If no agreement is reached, it will be up to Brussels to decide how the legislation should be revised.
Crucially, however, it is thought that lobbying from Neil Kinnock, a Commission vice-president, and John Monks, former head of the TUC and current head of the European Trade Union Confederation, led to new draft proposals being tabled which include a call for the phasing out of Britain’s opt-out "as soon as possible".
And despite the opposition of the British government, Labour’s Euro MPs have already said that they would support such a move.
Earlier, the TUC stepped up its campaign to end the UK opt-out with a detailed rebuttal of defence of the opt-out that the UK Government had submitted to the Commission.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "The UK Government's evidence is riddled with errors, inconsistencies and sloppy argument. If this is the best it can do, it shows the strength of the case for ending the opt-out.
"Our only worry is that the commission may fail to understand that this is little more than a cut-and-paste job from employer lobbying."
In a letter to the Commission, the TUC attacked the statistical basis of much of the government’s evidence and said that there are ‘clear grounds for concern about the adverse effect of long hours working and the frequency of health and safety incidents.’
“The reduction in longs hours working has been so slow that it will take the UK another 40 years to reach the EU average,” the TUC said.
It added that only one in three workers know about the 48 hour limit and that unreasonable pressure from employers to force workers to accept a working week in excess of 48-hours was widespread.
Moreover, it claimed, Ireland and Denmark have good records on job creation even though both have implemented working time rules in full.
But employers are growing increasingly angry about the burden of legislation, regulation and red tape. The British Chambers of Commerce has calculated that the cost to businesses of regulations introduced since 1997 has risen to £30bn, with European regulations accounting for 40 per cent of all regulations affecting British businesses.
The Working Time Regulations represent the single most expensive burden to be placed on business, the BCC says, costing over £10bn since its introduction five years ago and the removal of the UK’s opt-out would be greeted with dismay.
The Confederation of British industry (CBI) reacted furiously to the prospect of the opt-out being removed and said it would fight "tooth and nail" against what it has has termed the "nanny state" Directive.
"Business fully accepts its responsibility to do all possible to ensure people are genuinely choosing to work long hours and that any abuses are stamped out. Indeed, we have already offered proposals to the UK government to address this issue." said the CBI's deputy director-general, John Cridland.
"But we will fight tooth and nail against the proposal to gradually remove the opt-out.
"We will also be telling the Commission that collective agreements are not widespread in the UK so making the op-out subject to them is simply a non-starter."