Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 14:27 UK

Viewpoints: Working time dispute

The UK is resisting pressure to end its opt-out from the EU's maximum 48-hour working week.

Office workers in London (file pic)
UK workers put in longer hours than most other Europeans

Fourteen other EU member states also have opt-outs from the Working Time Directive, which is under intense negotiation ahead of the June European elections. Euro MPs voted in December to scrap the opt-out.

Here two leading figures in the debate - John Cridland of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Brendan Barber of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - put the cases for and against the opt-out.

FOR - CBI Deputy Director-General John Cridland

At the moment, if you work in the UK you have a choice. You can either stay within the 48-hour working week or you can opt out of it if you want to work longer hours.

CBI Deputy Director-General John Cridland

Naturally, some people opt for longer hours, and others do not. That's why there's a choice.

You might call this an important liberty, or you might just call it common sense. Either way, it lets people decide for themselves. We think this is a good thing, and so does the UK government.

But a sizeable group of politicians in Brussels think otherwise. They believe that it's wrong to work longer hours. And they want to impose this view on people across Europe, including people in the UK, by ending the opt-out.

Who would this affect? At the moment about one in 10 UK employees work more than 48 hours a week, according to the latest government figures. These people, including those who earn extra overtime, would be stopped from doing so.

But it would also affect all of us who want a choice about our hours. For example, if your partner loses their job and you are offered extra paid hours at work, you can take them, even if it means working more than 48 hours a week. Under the plans proposed in Brussels, this option would be ruled out.

Freedom would be replaced with frustration. Researchers working on cures for diseases would be unable to point to the importance of their work and put in longer hours. Ambitious people who want to work extra hours would be told to go home.

Unsurprisingly, the UK government is fighting hard in Brussels to keep the opt-out, and the majority of countries support its retention. It may surprise you that removing the opt-out is even being considered in a recession, when the last thing the economy needs is an extra restriction from Brussels.

The MEPs who want to end the opt-out say that longer hours mean exploitation. This would be true if people were forced to work them. But the opt-out that we have now means you can only work longer hours if you choose to opt out of the 48-hour working week. And the figures show that only a small minority do work longer hours.

Some MEPs who propose a ban on longer hours cite health and safety grounds. But the opt-out doesn't affect people like airline pilots and lorry drivers who rightly have separate rules. Nor does it affect Britain's health and safety legislation, which is the best in the world.

We think people should make their own decisions about whether to work longer hours. You know your own ambitions and circumstances and can take them into account. The opt-out allows you to do so, and this doesn't need amending in Brussels.

AGAINST - TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber

The TUC believes that long hours are dangerous to health. Europe's 48-hour maximum working week should be fully enforced and the UK's individual opt-outs should be phased out.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber

The health hazards and lack of productivity caused by excessive working time are well proven.

With people being made redundant or reducing their hours, the business lobby's insistence they still need long hours looks even more out of date, and there is a growing sense that the work that remains should be shared out fairly.

Without the opt-out Britain's workers will still be working hard to get the economy back on its feet, but they would be protected from the risks of stress, depression, heart disease and accidents that are associated with persistent long hours.

Most long-hours workers want to reduce their hours, but as the law on working time is weakly enforced, what the government describes as "individual choice" is often no choice at all for long-hours workers. It is clearly not acceptable that employers can continue to lean on workers to sign away their legal rights.

One important issue is that on-call hours spent on employers' premises must continue to count as working time.

Before on-call counted, wardens caring for old people in Harrow were required to be on call at their place of work for more than 70 hours a week on top of their standard working week. Consequently they were tied to their place of work for well over 100 hours a week, which cannot be fair.

TUC research shows that ending the opt-out would cause business little difficulty. The fact is that tired workers slow down, so it is not surprising that the government has found that many companies have already cut hours in order to improve productivity.

Furthermore, industries like road haulage have coped with the 48-hour week even though they cannot use the opt-out.

Yet there are still far too many companies who have not woken up to the fact that relying on long hours is a poor business strategy. The UK still has some of the longest hours in Europe, with one in eight workers (12.7%) regularly working more than 48 hours a week.

In reality, the transition to a better way of working could be managed easily. Employers would have plenty of time to adjust to the opt-out, as it would be phased out over a number of years. The earliest the phase-out could start would be in 2012, well after most commentators think the recession will end.

The opt-out will be under the spotlight again at a meeting of MEPs and employment ministers later in April and the TUC urges the government to put an end to dangerous long-hours working.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific