Time bomb?

Trade union Amcus has challenged the validity of the Government’s working
time laws.  Do they follow the spirit of
the European legislation – and are they up to the job of protecting workers?

Caroline Waters
Director of employment policy, BT

Health and safety was certainly at the heart of the directive and there are
some issues there. It is not from the point of view of things such as working
with machinery, because those areas are adequately covered by other
legislation. The real concern was curbing the trend in office workers’ time
which, particularly in the 1980s, was beginning to go through the ceiling.

The opt-out clause doesn’t really go against the spirit of the directive if
it is used sensibly. At BT we use some opt -outs, but only in exceptional
circumstances for operational need. In most industries there is a point where
it is critical that service continues – the 999 service being a prime example –
so you need to reconcile a need in terms of service provision with the rights
of the individual worker. That is best left to sensible implementation by the
employer with the worker.

One problem I have with the directive is that it is quite restrictive. At
BT, we’re trying to offer people flexibility and more choice in how they work –
to give them control and the opportunity to balance their working life with
their personal life. That is a clear move away from telling people they can
only work a certain number of hours between certain times.

A lot of our staff want to work longer hours over fixed periods so they can
‘time bank’ and have that time off later.

We also operate a Freedom to Work scheme, where thousands of BT employees
now work on an output basis. The line manager and the individual agree on what
needs to be delivered, when it should be delivered and to what quality and it
is then up to the individual to decide when and where they will work. As a
result, we have people working all sorts of hours, because that’s what suits

We’re not comfortable with anything that is prescriptive because one of the
biggest messages we get back from our people is that stress is created by not
having control. Giving that control has resulted in huge productivity
increases, as well as increases in customer and employee satisfaction.

The Working Time Directive has its place, but there is also a place for
growing good practice in terms of work-life balance within organisations and
the freedom that can offer employees.

Bernard Kingsley
Employee relations manager, Manpower

The derogation from the Working Time Directive to allow individual workers
to opt out of the maximum 48-hour working week will be reviewed towards the end
of 2003.

Although some member states rigidly apply this limit, the UK has adopted a
more flexible approach that reflects the labour market here and recognises that
some individuals have the right to choose to enhance their earnings by working
more hours.

From a health and safety viewpoint, there are some occupations for which
working hours need to be more tightly controlled, but a blanket approach may
not give enough weight to personal choice and would be extremely difficult to
effectively and fairly police.

Henry Stewart
Chief executive, Happy Computers

I would support a strict interpretation of the directive. Why does Britain
have this American obsession with working long hours? My fundamental belief is
if you are working long hours, you are probably not working effectively.
Working long hours is not good for customer service, not good for productivity
and not good for the lives of our employees.

We have to work out why it is we have such long hours, yet still have a
lower standard of living than people on the Continent.

Something is wrong and I would more willingly take the advice of our
European colleagues, than the advice of those businesses looking for longer

Marcia Roberts
Director of external relations, Recruitment and Employment Confederation

It is important to look at industries where the opt-out might be a problem
and see if it does actually compromise any health and safety issues. I’m not
aware of any detrimental effects since the directive was implemented or the
opt-outs negotiated.

Any increase in rights is a balancing act, because there is always a cost
which may not be a financial one – it could be to do with productivity, or
inward investment for instance.

I think it comes back to the balance of whether this is a voluntary opt-out
or whether it is forced on people. The REC firmly supports the former but not
the latter.

Clive Girling
Managing director, logistics consultancy, Isotrack

In the transport industry there is a pull in both directions. Drivers are
already restricted in the hours they work so it makes sense from a health and
safety perspective to extend this. However, the industry is already under huge
pressure – fleet owners and hauliers are on a 2 or 3 per cent margin if they’re

With 43 per cent of drivers currently working more than the directive would
allow, you would need to employ 20 per cent more people to do the same amount
of work to comply.

We’d all like to work less and have safer roads, but we have to remain in
business. Given this, changes to the directive would be bad for the industry
and for UK businesses.

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