An unsatisfactory EuroFudge has been cooked up by the European Commission in an attempt to find a compromise on the vexed question of Britain’s opt-out from the European Working Time Regulations.
Although the Commission’s draft proposals fall short of removing Britain’s opt-out, they allow the 48-hour work week to be surpassed only if a collective agreement is negotiated between employees and employers wherever possible. They would also prohibit anybody from working more than 65 hours a week.
What this means in practise is that unions would have the power to stop individuals working longer if they wished to. The proposals also state that employers should not be able to obtain opt-out consent during the signing of contracts, and that staff should be able to withdraw their consent 'at any moment’.
Opt-outs agreements would also be valid for a maximum of one year after which it would have to be renewed.
However the reference period by which employers calculate working hours would also be extended from four months to a year, while time spent on-call but not working will no longer be counted as working time.
"The individual opt out from the 48-hour working week would remain possible but be subject to stricter conditions to prevent abuse," the EU's employment and social affairs commissioner Stavros Dimas said of the proposed changes.
"It is a balanced package of measures that protect the health and safety of workers whilst introducing greater flexibility and preserving competitiveness."
But the Commission seems alone in its assessment of the proposals, with both employers and unions agreeing that they satisfied no one.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said that the proposals gave too much power to unions and that it would fight them “tooth and nail”. Director general, Digby Jones, said it should be up to individuals, not unions, to decide the hours they worked.
"If somebody wants to work longer hours to a limit, whatever it may be, it should be their individual choice.,” he said.
John Cridland, CBI Deputy Director-General, said: "This is an attempt to broker a compromise that has completely backfired. The proposals show a clear misunderstanding of the UK's industrial relations culture, which serves this country well.
"It is good that the Commission is allowing the opt-out to remain, but it is quite wrong to give trade unions a veto over what should be an individual decision. The proposals would undermine the individual's right to choose the hours they work.
"The new requirement to maintain records of hours even when an individual has chosen to opt out would trigger a mass of unnecessary form-filling for employers and employees. It is administrative minefield that could land companies in court if they get it wrong.
"Having annual agreement together with collective agreement is wholly unacceptable. Unions would be able to use the opt out as a bargaining chip, allowing them to hold management over a barrel every 12 months,” he added.
Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary, who has long fought for the complete abolition of the opt-out, was equally unhappy.
"This is a disappointing decision which will satisfy no-one," he said.
"People at work will get some slight extra protection against bosses who try to force them to opt out of a 48 hour working week but these limited reforms show that the Commission has failed to grasp the scale of the UK's long hours culture.
"We are working just about the longest hours in Europe and yet our productivity performance is dismal."
But the CIPD's Mike Emmott agreed that bringing the unions into the opt-out equation in the way proposed by the Commission was perverse.
"While we agree that managers should not be able to force their workforce to work long hours, it is far from clear why workers, through their unions, should be able to force their managers not to work long hours," he said.
"The commission is in danger of finding a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The evidence suggests that managers and professionals are at least as likely to be working long hours as employees in front line jobs."
The government has said that it will oppose the plans. A spokesman said: "It is not for the EU to tell people how long they can work, and this is exactly the wrong the way to run an economy.”
Any final changes will also have to be approved by the European Parliament before they can come into force. Although Labour MEP have sided against their own government in an attempt to get the opt-out removed, Britain can expect support from several of the EU accession states who are also opposed to the imposition of a 48-hour working week.
Another inevitable upshot of the proposals will be more of the Commissions’ favourite raw material – paperwork.
Speaking to the BBC, employment lawyer Owen Warnock said the changes would be bad news for businesses.
"There is good news and bad news for employers but mostly bad news. "For most employers, this legislation will add a considerable burden of red tape and a lot of the practical difficulties have not been ironed out."