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June 9, 2008

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UK secures working-time opt-out

UK workers can continue to choose to work longer than 48 hours a week, after ministers today reached a new agreement in Europe.

The Government believes the landmark agreement on both the Working Time Directive and the Agency Workers’ Directive at the EU Employment Council should satisfy business groups and unions by allowing the UK’s labour market the flexibility to prosper, while ensuring workers are treated fairly.

Business Secretary, John Hutton, said: “This is a very good deal for the UK. It provides a fair deal for workers, without damaging Britain’s economic competitiveness or putting jobs at risk.

“Flexibility has been critical to our ability to create an extra 3 million jobs over the past decade. That flexibility has been preserved by ensuring workers can continue to have choice over their working hours in future years.”

But the TUC last week called for the Government to back proposals to strengthen the Working Time Directive (WTD) to protect employees. The TUC believes that since its implementation in 1998, the WTD has helped to reduce excessive long hours, but owing to the UK’s opt-out progress has been too slow.

An extra 180,000 people in the UK — 3.3 million in total — are now working more than 48 hours a week compared with last year, according to analysis contained in a TUC report published last week.

Entitled The return of the long-hours culture, the report found that the number of people working long hours has increased at a faster rate over the last year than the decline in excessive working between 1998 and 2006.

The TUC argues that the recent increase in the number of people working long hours is due to the challenging economic climate, which has made employers more reluctant to recruit new staff and instead work existing employees harder.

In the wake of the report, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “After slow but steady progress over the last decade, long-hours working is making its way back into Britain’s workplaces. Employees across the UK already work the longest hours in Western Europe and the recent increase will mean lower productivity, more stress and less time to have a life outside the office with friends and family.”

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 governing the UK’s labour market 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.

Added 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.”

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