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April 27, 2009

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Opt-out not out after European talks fail

The UK’s controversial opt-out from the maximum 48-hour working week is

still in place, following the breakdown of negotiations on the subject

in Brussels yesterday.

The ongoing dispute between the European Parliament and governments of

more than a dozen member states over the Working Time Directive now

looks set to remain deadlocked until after the European elections in

June.

The Parliament is pushing for a deadline to scrap the opt-out, which

allows employees to choose to work more than 48 hours a week.

Governments against this move want to retain the opt-out and see the

maximum number of hours raised to 65 a week.

Businesses in the UK have long argued in favour of the opt-out, saying

to lose it would seriously affect the country’s productivity and

economic competitiveness. Commenting on the failure of yesterday’s

talks, deputy director-general of the CBI, John Cridland, said: “We

welcome the retention of the opt-out, which we have been calling for in

London and Brussels. It allows people to make their own decision about

the hours they work. Keeping the opt-out is a victory for common sense,

and is good for the UK economy.”

Manufacturing employers’ organisation the EEF was similarly welcoming

of the outcome, with head of employment policy, David Yeandle,

expressing his members’ relief over the retention of the individual

opt-out. He added: “The Government and its allies in other Member

States are to be congratulated on maintaining a firm position on this

important issue. Retaining the opt-out will help employers to manage

working time so that they can respond quickly and efficiently to

changing customer demands, and enable employees to choose to earn more

by working longer hours.”

The TUC, however, was dismayed at this latest breakdown. Said general

secretary, Brendan Barber: “We are disappointed that another

opportunity has been missed to end the UK’s dangerous long-hours

culture. Long hours cause stress, illness, and lowers productivity.

And, when many employers are moving to short-time working, the need for

an opt-out of the 48-hour week is even more out of date.”

Barber warned that unless the UK tightens its laws on working time the

EU could take it to court in order to protect UK workers from abuse by

employers of the 48-hour week. Although the current European Commission

is disbanding after this summer, the new team is likely to pick up the

issue and take it forward.

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