Firms eagerly awaiting the European Parliament decision on Britain’s exemption to the Working Time Directive (WTD) have said that now is not the right time to reduce flexibility for staff, because of the economic climate.
More than one in 10 British employees voluntarily work more than 48 hours per week, and refusing this right will put companies under more pressure at a time when money is tight, leading HR directors have warned.
Mick Leafe, HR director at bus operator Nottingham City Transport, said employers may be forced to increase pay rates for staff to substitute for the clampdown on longer hours.
“If we tell our drivers they are unable to regularly work more than 48 hours per week, that will restrict their earning capacity and they could say they want more money,” he said.
But Kieran O’Keeffe, senior policy adviser at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the pressure to push up wages as the economy plunges further into recession could be hugely detrimental.
“Employers are facing serious financial pressures at the moment and under current conditions very few would be in a position to substantially increase wages,” he said.
A final decision is expect‑ed to be reached on 17 Dec‑ember when the European Parliament votes. But as an employment committee of MEPs, including UK Labour MEPs, already voted against keeping the opt-out, this is likely to sway opinion.
Paul Reynolds, HR director at catering company Elior, said the thousands of catering staff who make up for comparatively low base pay by working longer hours would lose out, and people would be put off applying for such jobs if they knew they could not do overtime.
“The sector may find that a proportion of the migrant workforce, especially from former Eastern Bloc countries, which it has relied on more significantly in the past three to four years, may decide to return home as the earnings margin between the UK and the rest of Europe narrows,” he said.
The 2012 London Olympics will also suffer as the construction industry grapples to find the manpower to get buildings finished on time, other HR chiefs claimed.
Ken Hersey, HR director at construction firm Lorne Stewart, said: “It’s very common in the contracting industry for project bonuses to be paid once an employee has met a target to get a project finished. How do we get the Olympics finished if no-one is allowed to work more than 48 hours?”
Business secretary Peter Mandelson vowed to safeguard the opt-out, but it later emerged that in the unlikely event all UK MEPs vote to keep it, that would still not be enough to protect it.