UK keeps Working Time opt-out

2005

The British government has gathered enough support from fellow EU governments to head off controversial proposals to scrap the opt-out from the European Working Time Directive.

Social affairs ministers' meeting in Luxembourg were due to vote on whether to remove UK's right to opt-out of the legislation after last month's non-binding vote by the European Parliament in favour of ending the opt-out.

But with Germany, Austria, Hungary and Poland and Cyprus supporting the British position, a 'blocking minority' was able to prevent the vote did not take place.

The issue will now be sent back to the European Parliament, meaning that the wrangle will drag on into next year.

Earlier, the European Commission had tabled a proposal that the opt-out remain "in principle" until three years after the implementation of the revised directive, probably 2012.

But the proposal did nothing to dent the British government's opposition to any further erosion of its labour market flexibility.

A British ministerial briefing marked "restricted" described the European Parliament vote as "deeply unhelpful" to the UK and other member states and added that the UK was not prepared to allow the proposals to be "forced on us" where there was a blocking minority of member states opposed to them.

Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson said in Luxembourg: "We strongly support the freedom for companies to have the flexibility to offer additional hours where necessary, and for workers to have the freedom to choose to work longer hours, without coercion, where it suits them to do so."

And mindful of the fury that any further EU legislation would unleash among British employers, he added that placing legal obligations on work-life balance were unjustified and would place "huge burdens" on employers.

"The Commission wants to protect workers – so do we in the UK – but we also want to protect their right to choose how they manage their own working lives," he said.

A joint report from the UK Institute of Directors (IoD) and the Confederation of Polish Employers also poured scorn on the European Parliament's revised proposals saying that the opt-out was essential if the two nations were to compete with emerging economies.

"We simply cannot afford to relax our competitive advantage in any way if we wish to continue to enjoy our current standard of living," said Miles Templeman, Director General of the Institute of Directors.

David Frost, director general, British Chambers of Commerce, said that today's manoeuvering was "good news for business and for Europe's future prosperity".

"Flexibility is a major strength of the UK's labour market and will help to ensure businesses remain competitive in the global economy," he said.

"We congratulate the government for standing firm and gathering support for flexibility in Council. We hope that the European Parliament will take heed of the Council's decision in its second reading."

A recent survey of 750 long-hours workers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, found that more than three quarters said they worked longer than 48 hours a week because it was their own choice.

Fewer than a third of the employees polled had signed an opt-out clause at the same time as signing their employment contracts.

Meanwhile as the new EU states in Eastern Europe enjoy booming growth, rigid labour laws and short working weeks in France and Germany have brought with them record unemployment and economic stagnation.

But Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, maintained that the European socialist model remained something the UK should aspire to.

"We think it's appalling that our Government should be persisting with the opt-out," he said.

"We already work the longest hours in Europe. If other countries can manage without the opt-out, why should British workers be singled out for different treatment ?"