MEPs vote to end Working Time opt-out

May 11 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

It may be a non-binding vote, but the decision by the European Parliament to scrap the UK's opt-out from the EU's Working Time Directive (WTD) has still been greeted with fury by employers groups.

The vote by 378 votes to 262 Ė on the grounds of "health and safety" Ė could herald the phasing out the opt-out over the next three years.

The British government insists that the opt-out is a vital element in labour market flexibility and central to the success of the economy.

But defiant British Labour MEPs ignored their own government's policy and voted with the European socialist group to end the opt-out.

However the vote does not mean that the demise of the opt-out is a foregone conclusion.

Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla has said that he is against scrapping the opt-out. And with many of the new EU members in Eastern Europe also opposed to the removal of the opt-out and both Germany and Austria looking as if they will back the UK government's position, the decision could be overturned by the Council of Ministers in June.

If the opt-out did go, it would mean that Britons would be prohibited by law from working more than 48 hours a week. Only the army, police and emergency services would be exempt, together with chief executives and senior managers.

Employers would also be forced to keep detailed records of working hours, further adding to the burden of red-tape imposed by Brussels.

Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, described the decision as a "victory for common sense".

The TUC has long campaigned for an end to the opt-out despite the fact that many workers rely on extra overtime to increase their wage packets.

"I rely on my second income to make ends meet and to pay for the mortgage etc," one worker told the BBC today.

"What right has MEPs got to take my right away to provide a proper living for me and my family. Hands off my overtime!"

CBI Director-General Sir Digby Jones said that the vote showed the European Parliament has learned nothing about the challenge of globalisation.

"Presumably these are the same MEPs who will be complaining about employers relocating to China and India in the years to come.

"The current opt-out system works, in large part, extremely well. It gives employees choice in the hours they work, allowing them to generate wealth for their families and companies to generate wealth for the nation.

"If we allow Britain's economy to become hidebound in this way, emerging economies like China and India will walk all over us." he added.

Miles Templeman, Director General of the IoD, took a similar line.

"With Europe facing massive economic challenges from China and India, we should be looking to make our labour markets more flexible - not less. Business is trying to face up to the problems of the 21st Century, but MEPs have voted for a policy straight out of the 1970s."

David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the decision was a blow for business and the future prosperity of Europe. "It flies in the face of the EU's decision to focus on growth and jobs and sends a strong message that the European Parliament is not interested in improving Europe's competitiveness.

David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at the manufacturers' organisation EEF, said: "MEPs had the chance today to prove their commitment to the cause of labour market flexibility and economic growth; unfortunately the majority of them have fluffed their lines."

"Thankfully this is not the end of the story and we look to the UK government to continue to lobby for the retention of the opt-out and work with other member states and the Commission to reach a solution."