No progress in EU working time opt-out talks

Talks between government officials and MEPs at a meeting of the EU’s conciliation committee have failed to find a solution to differences over proposed changes to the Working Time Directive.

Under the terms of the Directive, EU employees must not work longer than an average of 48 hours a week.

However, the UK negotiated an opt-out from the regulation which allows employees to agree to work for longer hours. But last December, the European Parliament voted to drop the opt-out, the move to be phased over a three-year period.

A number of EU member states, besides the UK, use the opt-out and support its retention. Those governments are refusing to accept the MEPs’ vote.

The breakdown in the negotiations at the final conciliation stage in the EU’s legislative process means that, if no deal is reached before the European Parliament breaks up for elections in early June, the European Commission will have to set out new proposals.

Discussions have been made more complicated by a European Court of Justice ruling that both active on-call time – when the employee is at the workplace – and inactive on-call time – when the employee is not required to be at the workplace – can count towards overall working time.

While member state governments have agued that inactive on-call time should not contribute to the hours of the working week, unless national law or the terms and conditions of employment allow it, the European Parliament wants to include all on-call time in the average hours worked.

The UK government remains adamant that the opt-out will be kept.

Pat McFadden, the Employment Relations Minister, reiterated the UK’s stance: “We have said consistently that we would not give up the opt-out and that continues to be the case.

“We argued that everyone has the right to basic protections surrounding the hours that they work, but also the right to choose those hours. Choice over working hours has operated successfully in the UK and in other member states for many years.”

The Minister added: “In the current downturn it is more important than ever that people keep the right to put more money in their pockets by working longer hours if they wish. We refused to be pushed into a bad deal for Britain.”

Meanwhile, another UK government official said: “The updated directive on the table actually offers more safeguards for workers, including an absolute maximum working week of 60 hours, even if the opt-out is used to exceed the normal maximum of 48 hours.”

Business groups have urged the government to stand firm on the issue.

John Cridland, the CBI’s deputy director-general, said: “Member states are right to resist pressure from some MEPs to abandon the Working Time opt-out. This is in keeping with the common position agreed by national governments last year.

“The opt-out lets people choose longer hours if they want to. We think people can make this choice for themselves, and Brussels shouldn’t make it for them.

“A ban on working longer hours could also have unintended consequences, hitting overtime and people doing extra work to support their families during difficult times.”

Kieran O’Keeffe, head of European representation at the British Chambers of Commerce, agreed: “It would be foolish to try and end the working time opt-out, especially during a painful recession. It provides the essential flexibility that many businesses and employees are relying on to get through this downturn.

“Employees should have the right to work longer hours and put more money in their pockets if that’s what they choose. Businesses should also have the right to offer more hours if that’s what it takes to be competitive.”