Have a voice in Europe over changes to working time law

HR professionals have a unique
opportunity to influence the European Commission over the future of the UK’s
Working Time Directive opt-out by taking part in a ground-breaking survey in
this issue.

Personnel Today has teamed up with the Employment Lawyers
Association, following a request from the European Commission, to conduct a
study in the UK to discover the implications of removing the opt-out provision
which allows staff to work longer than 48 hours per week.

The results of the survey will be fed back to Brussels, giving
UK employers an unprecedented opportunity to influence decision-making at the
heart of Europe.

The European Commission is about to start a review of the
directive and the commissioner responsible, Fernando Pereira, wants to find out
whether the removal of the opt-out, which applies to the UK only, will damage
businesses or tackle the long-hours work culture.

Employment relations minister Alan Johnson, speaking
exclusively to Personnel Today, believes the UK must put up a fight to ensure
the retention of the opt-out clause in the Working Time Directive, secured in

"In the current climate the scrapping of the opt-out would
be very damaging for productivity – I am sure about that," Johnson said.

"We think the opt-out is good. We think it’s a good
balance for individuals to have the right to work more than 48 hours, but not
be forced to do so."

Research published last week by the Economic and Social
Research Council reveals that 40 per cent of large UK organisations currently
ask staff to sign the opt-out.

Its removal would hit certain sectors more than others, with
the worst affected including construction, catering and the NHS.

Elaine Way, president of the Association of Healthcare Human
Resource Management, believes the removal of the opt-out would increase
staffing shortages for NHS employers. "Removal will undoubtedly present
significant practical difficulties for the NHS," she said.

But Alison Holt, chief personnel officer for Leeds City
Council, is confident local government employers would be able to cope.
"It would cause some HR management problems," she said,
"however, I think we could work around them fairly easily."

By Ben Willmott / Paul Nelson

Key facts on the directive

– Working Time Regulations came into force in 1998 and are currently being

– 40 per cent of large organisations in the UK ask staff to sign the opt-out

– The main sectors affected include construction, catering and the NHS

– EC could scrap the opt out by the end of next year

Case study building services
Losing opt-out would send costs spiralling

Building services firm Lorne Stewart would suffer increased
skills shortages and higher labour costs if the European Commission removes the
UK’s opt out from the Working Time Directive.

Mike Taylor, group HR director at Lorne Stewart, said construction costs in
the UK – which are already among the highest in Europe – would also spiral and
have a knock-on affect on the UK’s economy.

"Around 99.9 per cent of all our weekly paid people have signed the
opt-out," he said. "You could argue that we should not have an
overtime culture and people in our industry should be able to have more leisure
time, but the skills shortages mean that is just not possible.

"It would be an unmitigated disaster if the opt-out was removed in the
near future."

The firm employs 1,200 staff and Taylor is convinced that most of its
tradesmen – who typically work between 52 and 55 hours a week – would also be
unhappy to be forced to reduce their hours because their wages would suffer.

"I think the European Commission should give employers the freedom to
make their own decisions and set targets to get to a 48-hour working week in
the UK over a lengthy period. I would say over a 10-year rather than a
five-year period.

"I am sure that in some industries the removal of the opt out will not
be so problematic, but in ours it would be a major issue."

Lorne Stewart provides plumbers, electricians and central heating engineers
for large construction projects.

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