Professional Agenda: Business will not grind to halt without opt-out

Isn’t it about time that the UK’s macho long-hours culture was consigned to the history books? With the UK opt out of the Working Time Directive up for renegotiation at the European Parliament, Amicus will be lobbying hard for the rights of UK workers who are currently allowed to ‘volunteer’ to work more than the 48 hour maximum which applies to the rest of the EU.

Trade unions first successfully challenged long-hours when the Ten Hours Act was introduced in 1850. It seems ironic that 150 years later we are still having to make the case for a sensible cap on the working week.

I believe there are three main reasons why the UK opt-out should go.

First, employees are no more productive if they are forced to work over-long hours. It is impossible for tired workers to remain alert and productive for more than 10 hours a day, over long periods of time. UK full-time employees work the second longest hours in the EU, yet in terms of productivity per hour worked we are only 12th in the EU.

Second, long hours are bad for your health. Let’s not forget, the Working Time Directive was introduced as a health and safety measure and if individuals are put under pressure to put in the hours, then health will suffer. According to the Department of Health, sickness absence due to stress is costing UK business £5bn a year.

Third, work-life balance. This isn’t just trendy HR jargon; it’s about giving employees the right to have a life outside work. Why is it that if you make it into a management position you’re lucky if you see your children for more than half an hour every night? The strain this places on family life is too much and for those without children, life can be equally hard. Professional couples rarely see each other during the week and the chance of self development through night classes can place individuals under too much pressure to make it worth pursuing.

Employers have argued that the opt-out is voluntary and any withdrawal of the opt-out would affect the flexibility which UK employers say gives them a competitive edge. But the reality is that the vast majority of workers have no choice when it comes to the hours they do. When a worker accepts a job, they will often receive the opt-out form along with their starting details. Workers in this situation feel they have no choice but to comply with the employer’s demand.

Can the UK economy survive the removal of the opt-out? The directive has operated successfully in every other EU country for the past five years. It will just take a bit of imagination on behalf of employers, but would mean a better quality of life for nearly two million workers and their families who are currently pressured into working far too much.

Rory Murphy is joint general secretary, Amicus

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