Employers and politicians are bracing themselves for an end to the UK's opt-out from the Working Time Directive, which allows staff to waive their right to work no more than 48-hours a week.
The UK remains the only EU member country to have the opt-out and pressure has been mounting in Europe to bring the UK into line with other states, restricting staff to a 48-hour working week. The European Commission has embarked on a review of the directive and will rule on revisions to the legislation by the end of November 2003.
David Yeandle, deputy director of employment policy at the Engineering Employers Federation, said meetings with Fernando Pereira, the commissioner responsible for the review, indicate that an end to the opt-out is inevitable. He said the EEF would be pushing for some sort of quid pro quo, however, such as being able to average working hours across a year.
"Given that the UK is the only country to take advantage of the opt-out, it will be a difficult battle to persuade others to allow it to remain," said Yeandle. "We will be pressing for as long a lead time before that happens as possible to make the necessary changes and ideally to be able to average working hours over 52 weeks."
A poll in Personnel Today revealed that two-thirds of employers believe an end to the opt-out would increase labour costs, such as forcing companies which operate production lines to fall back on contract workers to keep their operations running.
Others have welcomed the news, believing it signals a positive move towards ending the long-hours culture, which plagues the UK and is deemed to undermine productivity.
Paul Sellers, policy officer at the TUC, said the Government has little choice in the matter. "The Government has made a public commitment to stamp out the long-hours culture within five years and if it is going to meet that target it is going to have to change the law," he said.
"But essentially we believe this is a piece of health and safety legislation and there should be no exemptions."