Enjoy it while it lasts

Once again Personnel Today’s readers have made a significant difference. By
adding your voice to the working time debate in Europe, you’ve won a
well-earned reprieve.

Your forceful response to our research with the Employment Lawyers
Association has helped sway the European Commission towards retention of the
48-hour opt-out – for the time being anyway.

In January, more than 700 private and public sector employers took part in
our survey and 78 per cent voted to keep the opt-out – fearing that losing it
would affect their competitiveness. This is a major victory, particularly for
employers in the catering and construction industries, and proves that
policy-makers will listen when business pulls together.

Brussels certainly took on board the HR lobby’s arguments, but there were
other influences too.

One of the most important was a European Court decision that a doctor’s
on-call hours could be regarded as working hours. And the UK is no longer on
its own in favouring the opt-out, with more member states starting to use it.
Earlier hostility has certainly been reduced.

The EC has also learned that many employers use the opt-out to simplify
record-keeping, and that very few of those signing the opt-out actually work
excessively beyond the 48-hours per week over a long period.

Another factor is the commission’s preoccupation with bringing its 10 new
member states up to speed with employment laws – no minor task given the volume
of workplace related directives.

So Brussels has a number of competing priorities and is no longer in a hurry
to make a final decision on the opt-out. While it is still likely to be changed
in the long-term, it is unlikely to be abolished, and no tweaking of the
regulations is expected to begin before 2006 at the earliest.

UK employers should be relieved by this approach, but cannot afford to be
complacent. The 48-hour opt-out will no doubt raise its head again. If it is
widely used in your organisation, this reprieve may be shortlived… so make the
most of it while it lasts.

Jane King is editor of Personnel Today

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