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June 22, 2008

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More negotiations likely on working-time deal

The UK government has won the right for UK workers to continue to opt out from the Working Time Directive (WTD), but the TUC believes the European Parliament will insist that the conditions on the opt-out’s use will be tightened further.

Revisions to the WTD and the Agency Workers’ Directive were agreed at a meeting of the EU Employment Council on 9 June. The changes to the WTD mean that UK workers can continue to choose to work longer than 48 hours a week, but no more than 60 hours. The Government believes the deal should allow the UK’s labour market the flexibility to prosper while ensuring workers are treated fairly, but the TUC is convinced that further discussions are likely before the European Parliament ratifies the changes.

Disappointed that the opt-out remains, the TUC nonetheless applauded the progress made in other areas. For example, the opt-out for each employee will need to be renewed each year, plus they will not be able to sign away their rights in the first month of work.

General secretary, Brendan Barber, added: “Nor has the UK government won a permanent opt-out, despite its energetic campaign. The opt-out will be reviewed again in the future. While there will need to be detailed negotiations, and attention to the small print, the EU has once again proved an important route to better working conditions and employment rights.”

Business Secretary, John Hutton, said it was “a very fair deal for workers, without damaging Britain’s economic competitiveness, or putting jobs at risk,” adding: “Flexibility has been critical to our ability to create an extra 3 million jobs over the past decade.”

His comments were echoed by CBI deputy director-general, John Cridland, who said: “After a long battle over many years this agreement secures the individual opt-out from the 48-hour working-time limit. Some countries wanted to deny British workers the right to choose their own working hours, but that attempt has failed and we have retained this key aspect of our flexible labour market.”

The deal on agency workers comes after the CBI and TUC signed a joint declaration last month agreeing to a 12-week qualifying period for agency workers to be given equal treatment in a given job. The framework of rights include: strong health and safety provisions to protect all workers, the National Minimum Wage, maternity and paternity pay and leave, and 24 days of leave a year.

Said Hutton: “The agreement on agency working will give a fair deal for agency workers, and prevent unfair undercutting of permanent staff, while retaining important flexibility for businesses to hire staff for short-term seasonal contracts, or key busy times.” Irish Enterprise, trade and employment minister, Mary Coughlan TD, added: “This Directive represents another key measure agreed by the EU to ensure that there will be no ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of employment standards.”

However, while supporting the freedom and flexibility that it believes the opt-out brings, the Forum of Private Business (FPB) expressed concern that these benefits could be undermined by the new rights for temporary staff, which might act as a disincentive for small firms to employ such workers.

“We are hoping that greater flexibility on the working time opt-out will help employers who face a very challenging market,” said the FPB’s employment advisor, Martin Edwards, of solicitors Mace & Jones.

“However, the changes regarding agency workers will increase legal bureaucracy at a time when employers need to be able to respond flexibly to rapid changes in demands for their products and service.”

The European Parliament will vote on the changes before the end of 2008.

See SHP’s previous story on this subject by following the link below.

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