Employers furious at opt-out proposals

2004

European Commission proposals to severely curtail Britain's opt-out from the European Working Time Directive and give unions a veto on whether staff can work more than 48 hours a week have provoked fury from employers.

Under the French-inspired plans, unions would have to be consulted before any opt-out was be agreed, if employers at the company concerned already negotiate with a union.

The plans suggests that no worker should be allowed to work more than 65 hours per week under any circumstances and that any opt-out must be renewed annually. In addition, opt-out agreements could not be made at the time of signing an employment contract or during any probationary period.

Predictably, employers reacted furiously to the idea, accusing Brussels of trying to end Britain's opt-out through the back door.

John Cridland, deputy director of the Confederation of British Industry, described them as "totally unacceptable" and said that they would severely constrain business freedom in Britain.

"The Commission is trying to impose a Franco-German style of industrial relations through the back door," he said.

David Yeandle, of the Engineering Employers' Federation, said individuals should have the right to decide their hours, regardless of union opinion. "More and more people seem to be less and less enthusiastic about a collective approach to working," he said.

But the unions, who want a complete end to Britain's opt-out, said that the plans did not go far enough. John Monks, former general secretary of the TUC and now head of the European Trade Union Confederation, attacked the proposal as "a complete cave-in to the British government".

The British government, meanwhile, is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is attempting to revitalise its relationships with the unions ahead of the forthcoming general election but has consistently taken the side of business on the issue of the opt-out.