The European Parliament has approved proposed amendments to the Working Time Directive which would remove the UK’s right to opt out of maximum limits on the working week. At present, UK workers may agree to waive their right to a 48-hour weekly limit on the hours they work, calculated as an average over a 17-week period.

Following changes made by the Parliamentary Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, the proposed amendment goes much further than originally conceived by the European Commission. The original proposal preserved Member States’ right to provide an opt-out and sought only to crack down on abuses, e.g. by limiting the circumstances where rights could validly be waived and placing a greater importance on the role of collective agreements. The approved proposal would remove the opt-out within 36 months and introduce a new definition of on-call time to include the inactive part of on-call time (unless otherwise provided by statute or collective agreement). No-one would work more than 48 hours per week, including overtime, averaged over 12 months. Chief executives and senior managers, along with army and rescue services, would be exempt.

Although this may seem an ominous development for employers, the extension to the reference period for calculating the weekly average is billed as increasing flexibility for employers. Those in favour of ending the opt-out argue that this will account for peaks and troughs in workload, suggesting that year-long periods where employees put in this level of overtime simply point to understaffing.

Employers needn’t worry yet though, because any change must also be approved by the Council of Ministers (representatives from the Member State governments). The Council’s starting point will be the original Commission proposal rather than Parliament’s proposal, but the Commission can make amendments in light of Parliament’s vote. However, Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla has confirmed that he still opposes scrapping the opt-out.

The conflict ultimately stems from setting the needs of business against laws designed to protect workers’ health and safety, foster family life and prevent women’s exclusion from jobs that expect long working hours. Accordingly, there will inevitably be differences of political opinion between Member States, and several indicate that they wish to retain the opt-out, notably the UK, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Latvia and Malta. Unless the Council backs Parliament’s decision, there will be no final resolution for several months whilst the proposal passes through (probably) two readings before the Council. Failure to reach agreement will mean the death of the amendment.

Watch this space.

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