MEPs vote to axe Working Time Directive opt-out

MEPs have voted to ban people in Britain from choosing to work more than 48 hours per week – a “bitter pill to swallow” for UK businesses.

Members of the European Parliament voted earlier today (5 November) to axe the opt-out clause from the Working Time Directive, meaning that some three million workers who currently choose to work more than 48 hours a week would be forced not to do so.

A final decision will be reached in December by the whole of the European Parliament, but today’s vote to scrap the opt-out by the Employment and Social Affairs Committee is likely to sway opinion.

Liz Lynne, Liberal Democrat MEP, vice-president of the European Parliament’s committee, said: “Today’s vote plays politics with people’s pockets and runs the risk of sinking the government’s hard-won deal to retain the opt-out. Scrapping the opt-out would be a bitter pill to swallow for businesses and many hard-working people who are tightening their belts and who want to boost their earnings in difficult economic times.”

Lynne said that prime minister Gordon Brown now faced a “huge test of his leadership” in securing the support of his own Labour MEPs, who have consistently voted to remove the UK’s opt-out of the 48 hour week.

Lynne added that health and safety reasons were no excuse to scrap the opt-out. “Workers are already covered by existing health and safety legislation, including the one covering working with dangerous machinery.”

Earlier this year, the UK reached an agreement with other member states whereby Britain would support the Agency Workers Directive, giving temporary workers the same pay as permanent staff after only 12 weeks in a job, in return for being allowed to keep its opt-out from the 48-hour week. Socialist MEPs have now overturned this deal in the European Parliament.

John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general, said: “Some people want to work longer hours, some people don’t. The opt-out gives them a choice.”

The CBI believes that MEPs must respect the deal, carried out in June, and rejects calls to amend the working time text.

Business secretary Peter Mandelson has vowed to stand firm to protect the opt-out.

He said: “The decision by the Employment Committee is not surprising in the least.”

“To lose the ability to opt-out will mean workers cannot boost their earning potential when some are already struggling with high food and energy prices. Adding new rigidities to the labour market when employers are suffering under the credit crunch also risks losing jobs to China and India – who are focusing on Europe as US demand falters,” he added.

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