48-Hour Opt-Out Fails To Change

PUBLISHED: 13:30 09 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:20 06 May 2010

EFFORTS to scrap Britain s opt-out from Europe s maximum 48-hour working week failed at recent talks in Luxembourg. Trade and Industry Secretary Alastair Darling made clear that it was unacceptable to end the right of British workers to put in more hours

EFFORTS to scrap Britain's opt-out from Europe's maximum 48-hour working week failed at recent talks in Luxembourg.

Trade and Industry Secretary Alastair Darling made clear that it was unacceptable to end the right of British workers to put in more hours if they wished.

The latest attempt to tighten the working hours law collapsed recently as member states tried to hammer out a compromise deal.

Mr Darling argued that worker choice and business flexibility were at stake and that extending working hours beyond 48 hours was now an option being used by other countries too.

He said: "We have tried to find a way forward but there were two distinct views: those who oppose the opt-out demanded that the UK and other member states give up their automatic right to implement the opt-out, and wanted to agree a proposal to phase out the opt-out."

The outcome was the latest rebuff for the European Commission which has tried for years to remove an opt-out won by then Prime Minister John Major when the Working Time Directive was negotiated in 1993.

The opt-out allows voluntary deals with employees wishing to work longer hours in any member state.

Nevertheless the EC and unions claimed the system was open to abuse by employers and should go. One proposal would have obliged employers to negotiate with trade unions, pending the gradual phasing out over five years. Another would allow any employees working more than 48 hours to change their minds in an annual contact renewal. Employers would also have to explain why long hours were required.

EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla also suggested giving workers a one-month cooling off period after starting a new job to decide whether they wanted to work more than 48 hours.

But the Institute of Directors and the CBI both warned that losing the right to exceed 48 hours - with the employee's explicit consent - would cost vital labour market flexibility.

"Everyone has the right to choose to work more than 48 hours, but equally you have the right not to and that is enshrined in our law," said a Government spokesman.

"If anyone is breaking that law we have a system of tribunals and courts to deal with it.

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