Parliament to vote on working time

In a vote on the revised working time directive the European Parliament is likely to back the scrapping of the controversial ‘opt-out’ clause, which is mainly used in the UK.

Opt-out

Under the existing system, individuals can sign an agreement with their employers to opt out of the directive, choosing their own schedule outside the 48 hour time-limit. The UK is the only member state to currently operate this across a range of sectors. Other states allow it for particular sectors, such as hotel and health workers. The Commission proposal adds safeguards to the opt-out to avoid employer pressure: that it must not be signed at the same time as the employment contract and workers who refuse to sign may not suffer any detriment.

Definition of ‘on-call’

The Commission proposal would not count time spent on-call but not actually working as ‘working time’ even if the employee must remain in the workplace.

Reference period

Currently the time period used for calculating average working time is four months: the Commission proposes extending this to 12 months.

Parliament’s Employment Committee has already voted to support an amendment to the legislation which would phase-out the opt-out provision within three years. In his report, recommending the amendment, MEP Alejandro Cercas cited the European Social Charter and the Charter of Fundamental Rights which provide that workers are entitled to the limitation of maximum working hours. 

The European Trade Union Confederation backs this view, opposing all three of the Commission proposals and calling them "unbalanced and unhelpful to the welfare of workers". It also calls for the opt-out provision to be discontinued within 3 years.

The Confederation of British Industry supports the retention of the opt-out provision. It calls for flexibility and individual worker choice.

The European small businesses federation, UEAPME, also supports the opt-out, arguing that small businesses would be badly hit if workers were not able to put in longer hours in times of peak demand. 

An update of the 1993 working time directive is due to go to a European Parliament plenary vote in Strasbourg on 11 May 2005. The 1993 directive set down a maximum working week of 48 hours, with the possibility of individual ‘opt-outs’. The main controversy over the Commission’s new proposals is whether this opt-out should be retained (see EURACTIV 9 Dec 2005). 

  • The EP vote will take place on 11 May 2005. It is a first reading under the co-decision procedure.
  • The proposal will go back to the Council for further consideration by the member states.

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