European Parliament votes to scrap UK working time opt-out

The European Parliament has voted to scrap the UK’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive (WTD), limiting the working week to an average of 48 hours per individual.

MEPs voted by 421 to 273 to end the UK’s exemption to the WTD, which currently allows staff to voluntarily work more than 48 hours per week. The vote will now go to conciliation for a maximum of eight weeks while both the European Council and the European Parliament try to agree on the future of the opt-out.

Business groups including the CBI and manufacturers’ body the EEF are hugely disappointed by the result and the Labour MEPs who voted to end the opt-out in defiance of the government.

EEF head of employment policy, David Yeandle, said: “By failing to follow their own government’s stance, those Labour MEPs who voted in favour of ending the UK’s opt-out have let down both employers and employees. Given the current economic difficulties, we need to be smarter than ever, and it seems odd that MEPs are taking away people’s right to work overtime should they so choose.

Leah de Vries, employment lawyer with Pinsent Masons, says the scrapping of the opt out will hit employees who have got used to working overtime. If employers are tempted to ignore the 48 hour week she warns it could have serious consequences beyond the Working Time Directive.

John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general, said the vote was “misguided”. “Trying to ban people from choosing to work more than 48 hours a week is a mistake, and would replace opportunity with obstruction.

“Many people want to work longer hours in professions ranging from manufacturing to medical research. They do so to further their careers or earn extra money, or to help their firm through difficulties. They should be able to do so if they choose.”

Employers have previously told Personnel Today that scrapping the opt-out will lead to staff demanding pay hikes as they can no longer work overtime.

Jonathan Exten-Wright, senior employment partner at law firm DLA Piper, added: “Employers could now see their own costs soar as they are forced to cover the hours left behind by existing employees with additional appointments or agency workers to remain competitive.”

However, calculating the number of hours an employee has worked on average would be done over a 12-month reference period if the opt-out was scrapped, giving greater flexibility for employing staff for long hours during busy periods. Potentially, employees could work for 79 hours a week over 29 weeks of the year. Currently, the reference period is four months.

Earlier this year the UK secured a deal with the European Council to keep its opt-out from the Working Time Directive after agreeing to the Agency Workers Directive, which will allow temps the same rights to permanent staff from just 12 weeks in a job. Those in favour of keeping the opt-out believe the EU Parliament has betrayed them.

Cridland added: “We hope the Council of Ministers stand firm against these amendments and back the compromise agreed in June in which the opt-out was retained.”

The conciliation period will last until early spring next year. The directive will not have to be transposed into UK law for three years from the date of the directive’s official publication, so it is unlikely to affect employers until 2011.

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