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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 May, 2005, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
EU debates working-hours limits
Time card entered into clock
The directive, agreed in 1993, is being debated in a 10-year review
The European Parliament has been debating changes to the Working Time Directive, with Britain lobbying hard to keep a key opt-out clause.

The directive limits the working week in the EU to an average of 48 hours.

But some MEPs want an end to the current system whereby individuals can opt out if they want to work longer.

The UK uses the opt-out more than other EU countries, and the British government says removing it would reduce business competitiveness.

We don't want an opt-out and what we do want is a proper balance between work and family life
Labour MEP Stephen Hughes
However, unions in the UK say workers can be effectively forced into using the opt-out to work unfairly long hours.

The parliament is due to vote on Wednesday on proposals put forward by Spanish Socialist Alejandro Cercas, including:

  • Phasing out the opt-out within three years
  • Counting on-call time as working time, in most cases
  • Allowing average working hours to be calculated over a full year, rather than the present period of four months, but only if workers agree

The proposals have already been approved by the parliament's Employment Committee.

Health and safety

"The opt-out flagrantly runs counter to the very goals of the directive - health and safety of workers," Mr Cercas told the parliament.

Guarantees workers 11 hours' rest per day and regular breaks
Weekly working time of 48 hours, on average, or less
Minimum annual holiday of four weeks
Night working to be limited, usually, to eight hours out of 24

He added that a vote to scrap it would help allay French fears that the EU was becoming an unfettered free market economy, as the country prepares for a vote on the EU constitution later this month.

The largest group in parliament, the centre-right European Peoples Party - European Democrats, which includes British Conservatives, has not yet decided how to vote.

Socialists, Communists and Greens are mostly in favour of the changes.

Some MEPs from the British Labour Party were set to rebel against the British government's policy of opposing the proposed changes.

"We don't want an opt-out and what we do want is a proper balance between work and family life in Britain and every other member state of the EU," Labour MEP Stephen Hughes told BBC radio.

Conservative MEP Philip Bushill-Matthews told the parliament it was not for "out-of-touch" politicians to decide how many hours employees should work, but for the employees themselves.

Key objection

No-one should be coerced into working overtime... But I don't want to be penalised

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has said the British Government and business should go along with the "sensible compromise" put forward in the parliament.

General Secretary Brendan Barber said it met the key objection raised by "employers who encourage their staff to sign an opt-out" by allowing them calculate average working hours over 12 months.

"Employers say they need the flexibility to be able to cope with the peaks and troughs of workload. An annual average does precisely this," he said.

But the UK Engineering Employers' Federation said the plans to change the directive were "damaging" and could make the UK's flexible labour market suffer.

Healthcare worries

The Working Time Directive was first agreed in 1993, and changes are being debated as part of a 10-year review.

The European Commission itself has proposed that:

  • Employees should not be asked to sign the opt-out form at the same time as signing their employment contract
  • An employee should be able to withdraw consent at any moment
  • Where unions are recognised, they should have a veto on working weeks of more than 48 hours
  • Maximum working week of 65 hours

Wednesday's vote will be only the first reading. If European governments do not agree with the amendments proposed by the parliament, a second reading will be held later in the year.

There are concerns in the UK's National Health Service that the end of the opt-out for doctors would create staff shortages.

France, Germany and Spain also applied the opt-out to their healthcare systems after a ruling in the European Court of Justice said on-call time should be counted as working time.

What are your experiences of the Working Time Directive? Do you want the freedom to work longer hours or is the opt-out a useful tool for overbearing bosses?

Add your comments, using the form below.

I work for an investment bank where I had to sign an opt-out as part of my contract. Hard to say no on principle when you need the job. I am also on call, but will only ever be paid for three calls per night, regardless of how many calls are dealt with. No-one really makes an issue of it due to job insecurity in the financial sector. Such a hire and fire 'em culture.
M, London

Long working hours are damaging to the British economy - look how productive other workers are in comparison with UK workers. It's time we had sensible policies which put people first. I support the end of the opt-out. Good luck to the European MPs!
Judith, Hexham, UK

And people wonder why the EU is stuck in a perpetual cycle of stagnant growth and high unemployment...
Tim Lardy

Because there are so many low-paid jobs in this country, workers rely on overtime to take home a living wage. If this requirement is forced on us then a lot of people are going to be struggling to pay their bills.
Terry, Epsom, Surrey, England

Here we go again! Virtually every country in the EU uses the directive, but our government has to fiddle with it in their favour. If it works everywhere else, why not here? We are still being forced to do over 48 hours a week by the back door...
Steve, Glasgow, UK

I work in the City, and I can envisage a lot of people (especially at work) complaining about the EU infringing on their right to work long hours. However, I believe that behind closed doors there are very few of us who do not want to spend more time relaxing and enjoying life, and seeing more of our family and friends. I am totally in favour of scrapping the opt-out.
TD, London

The opt-out must be maintained. As a relatively low-paid employee, the one way I am able to earn a reasonable amount is by way of overtime. I regularly put in a 60-hour week, and that is my choice; there is no coercion. It is my democratic right to choose to work longer hours if I so wish. If we are forced to comply with this European nonsense, then my standard of living will fall. What sort of improvement is that?
Dave U, Redhill, Surrey

The real solution to the long hours culture would be compulsory payments for overtime, as they have in the USA. This would put an end to the scam of the monthly salary, whereby people receive the same pay no matter how much extra time they put in.
Mal Lansell, Finedon, England

Unlimited working hours are abused by employers - I've seen people practically forced to opt-out before. It's a pointless law if there's such a loophole and if we really believe that long hours hurt productivity and damage society, we should get rid of it.
James Hedley, Oxford, UK

The rules should be tightened to prevent abuses by employers, but politicians should not have the right to tell me how long I can and cannot work
Simon, Kingston

Work studies showed back in the 1960s that working long hours is counter-productive to business. No worker can be 100% productive after more than a 12-hour shift. In Germany it is against the law to work more than 10 hours for health and safety reasons. Why is Britain so far behind the times?
William Humble, Sunderland

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