Wednesday, 5 November 2008

No More 'Opt Out'?

The European Parliament voted today to limit the working week to 48 hours by removing the current 'opt out' system in place in the UK.

As it stands at the moment, employees can 'choose' to opt out of the 48 hour working week by signing the appropriate declaration when they begin work. Otherwise it is illegal for the employer to ask them to work more than 48 hours per week, averaged out over a period of 13 weeks. This is the Working Time Directive.

The about face, which will be decided once and for all in a full vote in December, will mean employees will not be able to exceed 48 working hours per week for any reason.

Although unions welcome the move, many other groups strongly disagree. In fact, Labour, the Conservatives AND the Lib Dems have all come out saying that they are against it.

Business Secretary Lord Mandleson said "People must remain free to earn overtime if they wish and businesses must have the flexibility to cope during busy times."

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also put their weight behind the issue, with Deputy Director-General John Cridland saying “This vote by a small number of politicians is worrying because it shows how out of touch they are... We think people can look at their own circumstances and make their own decision about working longer hours. We call this common sense, and it doesn’t need amending by Brussels".

Interestingly it is Labour MEPs who have voted for the legislation. Labour MEP Stephen Hughes described removing the opt out system as "a health and safety law". They are responding to a union motion supported at the Labour Conference in Manchester, ignoring Brown and Mandleson and instead acting from a "grass roots level".

A further embarrassment for Gordon Brown is that in June this year he offered to improve rights for Temporary Workers in return for keeping the opt out clause.

There are currently 3.2 Million people in the UK working more than 48 hours per week.

With the Credit Crunch in full swing even some unions may start to consider that removing the opt out is a bad idea. But with unemployment approaching 2 Million, there is another (unpopular) argument that creating jobs by denying hours to others is the way forward.

That said, critics of the opt out rule argue that if the rest of Europe can run on a 48 hour week, then why can't we?

Mike Horner

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