UK MEP is lone voice in call to keep working time opt-out

A UK MEP was vastly outnumbered by her European colleagues this week when she called to keep the opt-out to the Working Time Directive (WTD).

Liberal Democrat MEP Liz Lynne was the only voice among four other MEPs during a European Parliament seminar urging to keep the UK’s exemption to the WTD, which allows workers in the UK to work more than 48 hours per week.

Speaking at the seminar in Brussels, Lynne said losing the opt-out would force employees to work in a “grey economy”, where they would not be covered by employment law and could not take their employer to tribunal. She later told Personnel Today that keeping the opt-out would not result in employees being forced to work longer hours for fear of losing their jobs.

“It is hearsay to think that companies will lay-off people because they don’t sign the opt-out – that just isn’t the case. You cannot sign the opt-out at the same time as you sign the contract, and employees have four weeks to consider signing it,” she said.

But all other MEPs in the room agreed the exemption clause was “history”.

Alejandro Cercas, the current rapporteur of the European Parliament and MEP of the Party of European Socialists, told Personnel Today: “I don’t think all employers are bad, the UK does a lot for its employees. But there are always a group of people [employers] that are shameless. We use legislation to stop abuse – and stop those who are exploiting workers.”

However, the European Council agreed in June this year that the UK would keep its opt-out to the WTD because it agreed to the deal on agency workers, which allows temps the same rights to permanent staff after just 12 weeks in a job.

But since then, the social affairs and employment committee at the European Parliament has voted to amend this agreement, and scrap the opt-out.

“Many members made a compromise on the agency workers’ directive to get what they wanted on the WTD,” Lynne said.

She added the opt-out was totally voluntarily, and employees could “opt out from the opt-out at any time”.

European officials refused to predict how the vote would swing on 17 December, or when the WTD could be implemented. But employers would have at least three years from the date of the directive’s official publication, so the earliest this might affect employers is 2011.

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