Business leaders breathed a sigh of relief after efforts to curb Britain’s opt-out from Europe’s 48-hour working week were defeated.
The latest in a series of meetings between EU government officials and MEPs in Brussels broke down yesterday, meaning plans to update the Working Time Directive fall and the opt-out continues.
Birmingham Solihull Chamber of Commerce policy advisor Kirandeep Virk said it was “great news” as the directive was a threat to the region’s competitiveness in a global marketplace.
She said: “As we face tougher economic times, it is vitally important that both employers and employees benefit from the flexibility which is provided from the UK’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive.
“For employees, the option of overtime is perceived as an attractive benefit of employment. For employers, the use of the opt-out can be essential in maintaining overall flexibility and competitiveness.”
European MPs had wanted to phase out opt-outs enabling UK workers to work more than 48 hours a week over three years.
But the UK has strenuously defended the opt-out, which 14 other member states are signed up to, arguing that workers should be able to choose how many hours they work and flexibility in the workplace boosts the economy.
Last December MEPs voted by 421-273 to scrap the opt-out. They say it exploits workers who need the protection of a fixed maximum permitted number of working hours.
But talks between MEPs, member states and the European Commission failed after both sides agreed to abandon the negotiations.
Employment Relations Minister Pat McFadden said: “The current economic climate makes it more important than ever that people continue to have the right to put more money in their pockets by working longer hours if they choose to do so.”
Well over half of Gordon Brown’s 19 Labour MEPs were among those backing the end of the opt-out – even though the Prime Minister supports a policy first secured by the Tories in 1993 as part of the original Working Time Directive.
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said: “Millions of people are better off because of the opt-out and I am relieved we have been able to resist its removal.”
EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla said he was “sorely disappointed” by the failure to agree revised working time rules now.
“The Commission did its utmost to try and find a compromise by putting forward many proposals to help bring both co-legislators closer to a final deal. But, in the end, the positions were irreconcilable,” he said. “The likely outcome is that more – not less – member states will start using the opt-out, which is not something I want to see happen.”