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December 17, 2008

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End of working time opt-out is nigh

MEPs have today (Wednesday) voted to scrap the opt-out to the Working Time Directive, which could bring an end to the UK’s exercise of the clause, which it won in 1993.

Following a second-reading debate, the European Parliament voted by 421 to 273 in favour of ending the right to opt-out of the Directive, which would mean that workers could no longer work more than 48 hours a week. MEPS said the opt-out must end three years after the revised Directive is adopted. The new proposals state that the average 48-hour working week should be calculated over 12 months, and on-call time should count as working time.

For workers with more than one job, working time shall be the sum of the periods worked under each employment contract. The Directive will not apply to chief executive officers, senior managers directly subordinate to them, and persons directly appointed by a board of directors.

Amendments regarding on-call time, for the likes of doctors, were proposed by Spanish MEP, Alejandro Cercas. The European Council had been against the change, arguing that inactive on-call time should not count as working time unless otherwise decided by national law-makers, or by agreement between employers’ and employees’ representatives. A conciliation committee with the Council is now likely.

NHS Employers said it was disappointed by the result, and urged the legislators to take the special needs of the health-care sector into account when drawing up the revised Directive. Alastair Henderson, the group’s joint acting director, said: “NHS Employers are disappointed that the European Parliament has chosen not to support the compromise text agreed by employment ministers in June, which would have retained the opt-out for the UK and ensured that working hours could be sensibly managed without damaging services to patients.

“It is now important that the legislative process is completed as soon as possible so that NHS organisations and staff are clear on the rules that apply.”

The British Medical Association’s (BMA) Junior Doctors’ Committee believes that time spent on call in hospital should count towards doctors’ total hours. However, the organisation expressed concern about the phasing out of the opt-out.

Dr Andy Thornley, chair of the BMA’s Junior Doctors’ Committee, said: “Patients should be relieved that the European Parliament has rejected an amendment which could have led to junior doctors being resident in hospitals for excessively long periods, with little chance of proper uninterrupted rest. Patients deserve to be seen by doctors who are bright and alert, rather than tired and overworked.”

Commenting on the vote in favour of phasing out the opt-out, Dr Jonathan Fielden, chair of the BMA’s Consultants’ Committee, said: “Those doctors who have individual control of their working lives should be able to use their professional judgement to decide whether it is safe for them to opt out.

“Patients deserve safe, high-quality care. The NHS desperately needs an expansion in the number of consultants, yet removing the flexibility of the opt-out will deny patients access to some of the UK’s most experienced doctors. We hope the conciliation process will provide scope for individual member states to bargain collectively for a workable solution that protects patients, health workers, and the NHS.”

Speaking after the vote, Mr Cercas commented: “This is a triumph for all the political groups in the European Parliament — for the whole Parliament. It is a victory for the two million doctors and medical students across the EU.”

Green MEP for London, Jean Lambert, said the long-hours culture is contributing to illness and depression. She remarked: “There is enough flexibility in the current directive and proposed changes for companies to be able to cope if they have a sudden rush of work on.”

Stressing that tired workers are dangerous workers, she added: “The decline in productivity and creativity is not good for a knowledge-based society. Sixty-six per cent of workers in the UK are not paid for the overtime that they do, and their commitment is shown by being present and not through productivity.”

TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, described the vote as “Christmas come early”. Said Barber: “Britain’s workers will still be working hard to get the British economy back on its feet, but they will now be protected from the stress, heart disease, and accidents that result from persistent long hours. And their families will get their mums and dads back.

“MEPs have dealt Scrooge employers a big blow, and the long-hours culture will now become part of Christmas past.”

But business leaders called the amendments misguided. John Cridland, deputy director-general of the CBI, said: “Trying to ban people from choosing to work more than 48 hours a week is a mistake, and would replace opportunity with obstruction. In the current downturn, a family might depend on one parent being able to work extra hours if the other loses their job.

“Many people want to work longer hours, in professions ranging from manufacturing to medical research. They do so to further their careers or earn extra money, or to help their firm through difficulties. They should be able to do so if they choose.”

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