The government has launched an official consultation into Britain’s long-hours culture and the opt-out from the EU 48-hour working week ahead of new proposals from Brussels.
The consultation, which lasts until 22 September 2004, is intended to examine ways of ensuring workers have a real choice about long hours, protecting staff who do work long hours and making sure employees know about their rights.
"It is important that we protect workers from having to work more than 48 hours a week", said Employment Minister Gerry Sutcliffe, “but it is equally important that we enable those who freely choose to work longer hours to do so."
In May of this year EU 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.
The government’s strong commitment to retaining the opt-out to provoked anger from unions.
“It's hard to take this consultation seriously,'' said Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC. “The minister's statement makes it clear that the government has made its mind up to resist an effective crackdown on Britain's long hours culture.''
The Government should stop defending the indefensible and end the UK opt-out of the 48-hour working week," he added.
The TUC claims the law is widely abused, with one in three of those who have signed an opt-out saying they were given no choice.
A survey carried on in March 2004 by the Charted Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that almost half of those surveyed felt that their business 'encouraged' the working of long hours, one in three claimed that there was an element of compulsion, up from just over one in ten in 1998. More than a third also said that they signed the opt-out as part of their employment contract.
But despite this, only a third employees supported the end of the UK’s opt-out, with two-thirds per cent feeling the EU shouldn’t limit the number of hours they work.
Meanwhile employers group the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) stuck to its assertion that claims of widespread abuse of the opt-out are exaggerated.
"Claims of widespread abuse are wildly overdone,” said CBI Deputy Director-General, John Cridland.
“They should not be used as an excuse to deny UK employees and companies this vital freedom. Business wants to stamp out abuses that do exist. They undermine the regulations and put law-abiding firms at a competitive disadvantage.
“People should have the right to say 'no' to long working hours, but they should also have the right to say 'yes'."
Cridland added that the CBI had put forward its own proposals to clarify the law and remove any doubts about whether people are genuinely choosing to work long hours.
These would preventing the opt-out from being a condition of an employment contract, require opt-out agreements to state that the employee can rescind them at any time, after a reasonable notice period and ensure that employers and staff were aware of their rights and responsibilities under the directive.