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European Parliament votes to scrap working time opt-out


European MPs have voted to scrap the UK’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive, limiting the working week to an average of 48 hours.

MEPs voted in favour of ending it by 421 votes to 273. The UK government will now enter negotiations with the European council of ministers, with the aim of reaching a final decision on whether the opt-out will be scrapped early next year.

Business experts have expressed extreme disappointment with the result. Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, said: “The removal of this flexibility neglects to recognise that employees may value the freedom of choosing whether to work more hours or not.

“We urge the government to remain firm and retain this opt-out to protect the long-term flexibility of the UK labour market.”

Andrea Ward, of law firm Hogan & Hartson, echoed these views: “The existing ‘opt-out’ and importantly, the provisions to ‘opt-in’ by giving written notice, give employers and workers the necessary flexibility to cope with changes in demand. This decision, in the middle of an economic downturn, fails to recognise that the opt-out can benefit workers as well as employers, as it has for a decade.”

John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general, said that the vote was misguided. “Trying to ban people from choosing to work more than 48 hours a week is a mistake, and would replace opportunity with obstruction.”

However, MEP Jean Lambert was delighted with the decision. “Despite intense lobbying from the UK government and businesses, MEPs have stood firm and supported workers, who are too often left open to exploitation.

“There is a large degree of flexibility built into the directive so that workers can work longer in peak times, if required. The 48-hour per week maximum is calculated on average over a 12-month period. This means workers can work longer some weeks as long as they are also allowed sufficient rest,” added Lambert.

The main points of the directive, as adopted by MEPs today, are:

  • The individual opt-out from the 48-hour week will end three years after the directive is adopted

  • The average 48-hour week can be calculated over 12 months

  • The entire period of on-call time, including the inactive part, to be working time, unless a collective agreement determines otherwise

  • For workers with more than one contract of work, working time shall be the sum of the periods of time worked under each of the contracts

  • The directive will not apply to chief executive officers, other senior managers and persons directly appointed by a board of directors.

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