Reprieve for the Opt-out from the 48-hour Weekly Limit
The EC Working Time Directive requires member states to ensure that national rules make it unlawful for an employer to require workers in all sectors, public and private, to work more than an average of 48 hours a week. The Working Time Regulations 1998 implement the Directive in the UK. However, the Government negotiated an opt-out from the 48-hour weekly working limit where an individual employee gives his or her prior agreement to waive this right.
The EC Commission has repeatedly expressed concern over the way the opt-out was being used in the UK. In 2004, the Commission published proposals to revise the Directive, which included putting restrictions on the opt-out. The UK Government maintained its stance that retaining the opt-out would protect employee choice and workplace flexibility. Many employers voiced their concern at the effect any restrictions on the opt-out would have on their ability to meet deadlines.
The European Parliament recently decided that the Commission’s proposals did not go far enough to protect workers from the health and safety consequences of overworking and voted to scrap the opt-out three years after the revised Directive comes into force. The Members of the European Parliament agreed with the Commission’s proposal to extend the reference period, over which the average working week is calculated, from four to twelve months, but voted to strengthen the conditions. In addition, the Parliament approved a proposal for all hours when an employee is ‘on call’ to count as working time in a majority of cases.
This decision was roundly condemned by UK business leaders whilst the Trades Union Congress welcomed the vote.
The matter was due to go before the European Council for its decision. However, the UK Government succeeded in getting together enough Ministers opposed to the move to prevent a vote in the Council taking place. As a result, the matter will return to the European Parliament and is not likely to be raised again for some time.
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