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