The odds on British businesses maintaining their opt-out from the European Working Time Directive (WTD) are getting longer and longer, as it seems the UK does not have enough MEPs to sway the vote next month, a senior business figure has warned.
Even in the extremely unlikely event that MEPs from all UK political parties (including Labour), voted to keep the cherished opt-out, which allows employees to work more than 48 hours per week if they choose, there would still be too few votes to sway the decision, according to David Yeandle, head of employment at manufacturers’ body the EEF.
Gordon Brown will struggle to “stand firm” to protect the exclusion as promised unless he rapidly gathers commitment from European member states to put pressure on their MEPs to keep it, Yeandle told Personnel Today.
“There are quite a lot of Liberal MEPs not from the UK who would vote against [keeping the opt-out]. So even if Brown got all UK MEPs to vote against the amendments [to kill off the opt-out] – which won’t happen anyway – this will not be enough to sway the vote,” he said.
Last week, the EU’s employment committee voted to scrap the opt-out – a decision that is likely to sway opinions when the full European Parliament finally votes next month (thought to be on 17 December).
Yeandle added that the prime minister had to hurry up if he was to gather enough support from across the EU to overturn last week’s vote.
“It is not been taken out of Brown and [Peter] Mandelson’s hands,” he said. “They have got a key role to play to make sure UK MEPs vote to keep the opt-out, and they have to put pressure on European member state colleagues to put pressure on their MEPs to vote against amendments,” he said. “But this will be tricky to do.”
One in 10 British employees work more than 48 hours per week, mainly in response to business demand or to make up for relatively low base pay. Business groups including the CBI have argued that axeing the opt-out will stop companies aiming to go that extra mile.
Employers believed the UK had secured its exclusion to the WTD by conceding ground on the Agency Workers Directive, which was passed in October and will entitle temporary workers to the same pay as permanent staff after just 12 weeks in a role.
Labour MEPs however, have consistently voted against keeping the opt-out.
Yeandle said: “It will be very difficult to persuade all Labour MEPs to vote against the amendments. There are relatively few of them who will vote to support the government. There are also one or two question marks over Liberal [Democrat] MEPs,” he said.
Conservative MEPs are, however, likely to vote to keep the opt-out.