EU committee votes to scrap WTD opt-out

Measure set for full parliamentary vote in mid-May

The European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee has voted to scrap the individual opt-out of the EU Working Time Directive (WTD), sparking sharp criticism from the UK business community.

The 31 to 14 decision yesterday to remove the UK’s opt-out provision in 2010 could mean that employers will no longer be able to ask their staff to work more than 48 hours per week should MEPs agree with the Committee’s decision. The matter faces a full vote in the European Parliament in mid-May.

“The CBI is extremely disappointed that the Committee has failed to take a balanced approach to the issue of the individual opt-out,” said John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI).

The opt-out clause has provoked much debate at home. Though the Labour government has stood alongside the business community in firm support of the opt-out, in March the UK parliamentary body that advises the government on employment policy recommended removing the provision.

The Trade and Industry Select Committee believed the WTD had “enough flexibility to accommodate the needs of business”, and the European Parliament’s vote echoes its decision.

“Perceptions of abuse are misplaced, and rather than phasing it out the CBI had urged MEPs on the committee to accept amendments designed to strengthen the protection for those who do not wish to work more than 48 hours,” Cridland said.

UEAPME, the European small and medium business organisation, also condemned the vote, stating that the 90% of European businesses with less than 10 employees stand to lose the flexibility that enables them to adapt to specific needs in different sectors, as well as seasonal demands.

Philip Bushill-Matthews MEP, the Conservative employment and social affairs spokesman in the European Parliament, blamed Labour for its breakaway MEPs who voted to bring the UK’s opt-out one step closer to being scrapped.

“Once more, Labour’s claim to be the party of business is shown to be all talk,” he said. “The government has stood by and done nothing. It seems that contrary to the government’s stated commitment to fight to retain the opt-out, ministers are actually quite happy for the opt-out to be scrapped by the Brussels back door.”

Cridland, however, expressed the CBI’s confidence in Labour’s support of protecting the opt-out.

“It is reassuring that the UK government understands business concerns and continues to stand resolutely against any proposal to get rid of the opt-out,” he said. “We will now be briefing MEPs of all parties ahead of the full parliament vote, and we hope that they will recognise the importance of this to UK employers and their employees.”

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