If UK businesses had hoped for pragmatism from the European Parliament in its plan to remove the opt-out clause from the Working Time Directive (WTD), they were in for a disappointment.
Last week in Strasbourg, France, at a special forum held to outline the proposed changes to the WTD ahead of a vote in the European Parliament to remove the opt-out, a string of MEPs painted the clause as an instrument of worker subjugation.
The amendments to the WTD – which also include a proposal for all the time that workers spend on call to be counted as working hours – were passed by a majority of 378 to 262 last Wednesday (11 May).
At a briefing on Monday (16 May), the chief author of the proposals, Spanish socialist MEP Alejandro Cercas, wasted little time in attacking the opt-out clause.
Describing it as “fraud”, he said it pointed a dagger at what he described as “Social Europe”, or the idea of European labour laws having powerful safeguards for workers’ rights.
Greek MEP Dimitrios Papadimoulis warned that extending the opt-out clause could lead to it becoming the rule, rather than the exception, in European labour conditions.
Dutch and German MEPs who helped to draft the amendments to the WTD weighed in with warnings that labour conditions would deteriorate without the further strengthening of workers’ rights.
“Europe must show some kind of responsibility for the workers,” said Elisabeth Schroedter, a German Greens MEP.
Jose Albino Silva Peneda, a Portuguese MEP, went as far as reminding journalists of the clear differences between working conditions in Asia and Europe.
UK Greens MEP Jean Lambert, who helped draft the proposal to drop the opt-out, said statistics actually showed only one in three employees knew that there are legal limits on working hours.
She also questioned the way in which the opt-out was policed, to ensure that workers did not feel obliged to agree to it.
“You are not told it is a condition of getting a job, but you are certainly made to feel it,” she said.
While all these comments highlighted the considerable momentum in the European Parliament in favour of scrapping the opt-out clause, UK businesses may be reassured to know the WTD changes still have to negotiate the long path of European legislative change.
After being passed at its first reading in the European Parliament, the WTD legislation will now shift to the European Council of Ministers for consideration, as part of the ‘co-decision’ process between the two bodies.
MEPs were hoping a large vote in favour of the legislation on Wednesday would send a strong message to the council, but further changes could be proposed by the council before the legislation is returned to the parliament for its second and third readings, which will probably take place later this year.
Any differences of opinion between the council and the parliament will be further complicated by the onset of UK presidency of the council from June.
Given Downing Street’s stated support for the opt-out clause, any changes to the WTD may be delayed until after the UK presidency of the council finishes at the end of the year.
Even if the long process of amending the WTD to drop the opt-out clause is completed within this year, businesses will be given at least three years to comply.
In Strasbourg, Conservative MEP Philip Bushill-Matthews claimed the Labour government had not done enough to bring its own MEPs into line, and described the legislation as needless interference from European bureaucrats.
He told Personnel Today that European trade unions had played a key role in pushing for the opt-out to be dropped, and that research had shown few cases of working conditions being abused by the use of the opt-out clause in the UK.
“We have got legislation to protect workers, so it’s not a question of not having protection,” Bushill-Matthews said.
Liberal Democrat MEP Liz Lynne said any Labour MEPs who voted to drop the opt-out should reflect on the damage it would cause to the UK economy.
She also said that the opt-out clause should be retained, with stringent rules to prevent individual workers being forced to sign on to the clause when starting a job.
UK business groups such as the EEF – the manufacturers’ organisation – and the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), have asked the UK government and UK MEPs for support in opposing plans to drop the opt-out.
David Yeandle, deputy director of employment for the EEF, called on UK politicians to stand ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with their European counterparts in a bid to keep the opt-out.
Such a determined approach will clearly be necessary to retain the opt-out, given the strength of opposition from the European Parliament.
UK working week exceeds most EU states
Working hours in the UK exceed those in most new European Union (EU) member states.
A report by the European Industrial Relations Observatory also shows that staff in western Europe generally work fewer hours than their counterparts in eastern and southern Europe.
The report said the UK’s usual weekly working hours amount to 43.1, which is only exceeded in the expanded EU by Latvia, which has a weekly total of 43.3.
The latest available comparative figures (2003) show that workers in Romania (41.8 hours), Poland (41.5 hours), the Czech Republic (41.1 hours), Slovenia (41.4 hours) and Estonia (41.1 hours), all work fewer hours than the UK, and these are the EU countries that work the longest hours.
By comparison, the figures in western European countries are lower, such as Italy (38.7 hours), The Netherlands (38.8 hours) and France (38.8 hours).
The report said that workers in the 10 new EU member states work almost three more working weeks a year than those in the old 15-member EU.
With regard to holidays, Sweden’s workers enjoyed 44 days off last year – more than double the annual leave and public holidays collectively agreed in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia.
BOXTEXT: History of the opt-out
The opt-out was negotiated by the UK when the European Working Time Directive (WTD) was introduced in 1993
It allowed companies and their employees to agree not to apply the 48-hour maximum working week in the WTD, provided workers agreed voluntarily, and in advance
Although it has been used elsewhere in Europe, the opt-out has been used most extensively by UK businesses, which say it is an important factor in maintaining the productivity and flexibility of the UK economy