CBI report urges retention of individual opt-out from 48-hour week
In June 2003, the Confederation of British Industry published a report arguing that the removal of the scope under the EU working time Directive for individual employees to opt out of the 48-hour limit on average weekly working hours could have a severe impact on the competitiveness of UK businesses.
On 25 June 2003, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) published a report report urging the government to protect the right of UK employees to work more than 48 hours a week if they choose to.
The UK’s Working Time Regulations 1998 (UK9810154F), permit individual workers to agree in writing that the statutory 48-hour limit on average weekly working hours should not apply in his or her case. Such individual 'opt-outs' are permitted by the current provisions of the EU working time Directive (93/104/EC), but the UK is the only Member State to have taken up this option. Moreover, the Directive requires that by 23 November 2003 (seven years after the date of the adoption of the Directive) the Council shall, on the basis of a proposal from the European Commission accompanied by an appraisal report, re-examine this provision and decide on what action to take. This raises the prospect that the scope for enabling individual opt-outs could soon end. The Commission is known to be considering a report drawn up by UK academics on the impact of the use of individual opt-outs in the UK, but it remains to be seen whether the Commission will recommend the ending of the practice.
Ahead of the November 2003 deadline, the CBI report argues that there is little evidence that employees are being coerced into working longer hours, nor that the use of the individual opt-out presents a health and safety risk or is linked with an increase in workplace accidents. However, a CBI survey of 400 UK firms found that 60% said that the removal of the individual opt-out would have a 'significant or severe' impact on business and damage competitiveness. The greatest use of the opt-out is reported to be amongst small firms.
According to Digby Jones, director-general of the CBI, retention of the opt-out is 'the next test of the government’s stated commitment to labour market flexibility'. He said: 'This is about choice. People should have a right to say no to long hours and the Directive rightly gives them that protection. But they don’t want unions and politicians telling them when they can work or for how long. That would be the over-zealous interference of the nanny state. Further restrictions on working time would be a kick in the teeth for many firms, particularly smaller ones. The move would inflict serious damage on our highly successful labour market by increasing costs and exacerbating skills shortages.'
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), responded by saying that UK businesses were 'obsessed' with making workers accept long hours. 'Many workers simply don’t get a choice whether or not to work long hours. Some feel bullied into staying late. For others the workplace culture means that leaving on time is seen as letting the team down.' The TUC has called on the government not to seek an extension of the current individual opt-out provision beyond November 2003 (UK0202102F).