‘Working-time opt-out leaves employees no choice’

Under the opt-out scheme of the Working Time Directive, workers don’t have a real choice of not working longer hours if their employer wants them to, say MEPs from the Parliament’s two largest groups. 

“Today’s working conditions resemble the beginning of the industrial revolution more than the 1970s, when working time was highly regulated,” said Parliament President Josep Borrell (PSE, Spain) in the meeting organised by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound). Borrell cited the example of his own children, who are in their thirties and hardly have any time to share with their respective partners due to high workloads. He said that the working conditions at the beginning of the 21st century stand as a proof that the Working Time Directive is urgently needed and needs to be more effective. 

He was backed by Portuguese Conservative MEP José Silva Peneda, who said that the personal opt-out clause in the Working Time Directive was “absurd, like saying this is a law that must not be obeyed”. The opt-out clause says that workers can work longer hours than the directive’s weekly maximum of 48 hours if both the worker and the employer agree, but, Silva Peneda argued, workers who are dependent of their employers, are never free to opt for what is best for their private lives. The opt-out, which was introduced due to pressure from the British government, “is essentially a UK solution, rather than a European one”, the MEP argued. 

Unsurprisingly, Renate Hornung-Draus, Chair of UNICE’s employment committee and Vice-Chair of the Economic and Social Committee’s Employers’ group, argued for a more flexible workforce, including occasional longer working hours which, she said, were important, particularly for smaller companies. She fiercely attacked the European Court of Justice’s ruling that on-call times must be counted as working time. 

ETUC Confederal Secretary Catelene Passchier said that the individual opt-out should never have been allowed. She recalled trade unions’ campaign for a statutory maximum working week of 48 hours, fought in the early years of the 20th century, and the ILO’s very first convention in 1919, which laid down the 48-hour working week as a worldwide limit. 

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