As MEPs meet to debate the future of the UK's individual opt-out from Europe's limit of 48 hours on the average working week, the TUC has published a report today (Monday 15th Dec) that shows ending the opt-out would cause business little difficulty. Ending the opt-out would also improve the health and safety of long-hours workers and the victims of accidents caused by overtired and stressed workers.
The TUC report Ending the opt-outs from the 48 hour week- Easy steps to decent working time says that the UK is still the long-hours capital of Europe, with one in eight workers (12.7 per cent) regularly working more than 48 hours a week.
However, well over one in three workers (37.6 per cent) only work one or two hours more a week. Small adjustments to these jobs would easily allow a 48 hour limit to be introduced. As the limit is an average calculated for most people over 17 weeks, individuals would still be able work more than 48 hours in any week as long as they reduce their hours by the same number in another week.
Employers would have to time adjust too, as the opt-out would be phased out over a number of years. The earliest the phase-out could start would be in 2012, well after when most commentators think the recession will end.
The 48 hour limit would start with the 460,000 workers doing more than 60 hours a week - a workload that is dangerous to them and those around them and adds up to more than seven eight-hour days a week. The experience of industries such as transport, which already have stricter limits, shows that reductions in working time can be achieved through higher productivity which benefits both employees and employers.
TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'MEPs have consistently opposed the UK individual opt-out from the 48 hour week, and they should do so again today. Our report shows that the impact on business of ending the opt-out is much exaggerated. Many workers only work a few hours over the limit and employers would get plenty of time to adjust.
'But it would make a difference to hard-pressed staff. Long hours working makes people ill and it is no surprise that most long-hours workers want to reduce their hours, relieving the pressure on their families. The Government's own research shows that individuals are not given a real choice about opting out, and that the law is hardly enforced. What the Government describes as an individual op-out is in reality no choice at all for many long-hours workers.'
Long hours fact file
- The European Commission has been conducting a review of the Working Time Directive (WTD) since 2004. After a long delay, this review is now close to its conclusion. The most controversial issue is the UK's longstanding individual opt-out from the EU's limit of 48 hours on the average working week.
- The review must be jointly decided by the European Parliament and the Social Affairs Council, which brings together employment ministers from the EU nations (BERR in the UK).
- The European Parliament is expected to conduct its second reading of the WTD review on Wednesday 17 December. If they do not change their official position, then they will vote for the opt-out to go.
- However, the Social Affairs Council has previously voted for the opt-out to stay. A conflicting vote in the European Parliament would trigger a formal negotiation process with a short, fixed timetable.
- Negotiations would have to conclude by early February 2009, with any agreed changes not taking effect until February 2012 at the earliest.