Trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling today (Tuesday) carries the hopes of British business to Brussels for crucial negotiations over limits to working hours.
Darling is representing the UK at a top-level EU meeting to thrash out the wording of the Working Time Directive. Member states have been arguing over amendments to the law for three years, but there is a growing feeling that a compromise may be reached this week.
David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at manufacturers’ body the EEF, told Personnel Today: “There is a lot of impetus for a deal to be done.”
Businesses have implored Darling to ensure the revised law allows workers to opt out of its limit of 48 hours per week. The draft, drawn up by the Finnish presidency and being debated today, allows such an opt-out, but imposes conditions that UK firms say make it unworkable.
“We have told Darling that we want to retain the opt-out clause, but not with all the bureaucratic conditions attached to it in this draft,” said Yeandle. “As it stands, there would be an increase in administration costs for those companies using the opt-out, and some would decide it was all too much bother.”
Workers would have to sign opt-out forms every 12 months, and companies would have to keep detailed records about hours worked.
CBI deputy director general, John Cridland, said: “It is essential to the UK economy that we retain the opt-out. The British government must continue to hold steadfast in its negotiations.”
However, trade unions have told the government that the opt-out should be withdrawn from the directive. Paul Sellers, TUC working time policy adviser, said: “There should not be an opt-out as the 48-hour limit is a piece of health and safety legislation. Should workers be able to opt out of wearing hard hats?”
Key points of the Finnish proposal
- The 48-hour ‘soft’ cap will remain, but workers can opt out of this if their government allows.
- A 60-hour ‘hard’ cap to be introduced, with no opt-outs possible.
- Working time to be calculated over 12 months.
- Time ‘on call’ will not count as working time.
- No cap will apply to executives, farmers or emergency workers.