Working Time Regulations – European Parliament votes to scrap 48-hour opt-outMonday, December 29th, 2008
As generally expected, the European Parliament voted on 16 December to adopt an amendment to the European Working Time Directive that would phase out the opt-out from the 48-hour average working week within three years. The votes were 421 votes in favour, 273 against and 11 abstentions.
The Working Time Regulations, which implement the European Directive, restrict the average working week to 48 hours, normally over a “reference period” of four months. In some situations, the reference period can be extended to six months or one year. The opt-out provision, which was obtained by the UK in 1993, allows workers to choose to work longer hours without any averaging over a reference period. Fifteen member states currently exercise the opt-out in certain business sectors, even though the provision officially expired in 2003.
In June 2008, after several years of deadlock, the EU Council of Ministers reached an agreement that would have formalised the opt-out but would have introduced various safeguards for workers who take advantage of it. However, in November, the Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee voted by a large majority (35 votes for, 13 against and 2 abstentions) to adopt a report that differed significantly from the Council’s agreed position.
Another amendment also overturns the Council’s proposals respecting the definition of “on-call” time – a significant issue for doctors and medical students. Rather than divide on-call time into “active” time and “inactive” time, with inactive time not counting as working time, the amendment states that all on-call time, even the inactive period, is working time, but provides for a modified calculation for the purpose of compliance with the average maximum working time.
Another amendment adopted by Parliament is for the 48-hour average to be calculated over all of a worker’s jobs.
The next stage is expected to be a conciliation process between the Council and the Parliament in order to draw the opposing views closer. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any compromise plan that does not include the abolition of the opt-out would be accepted by the European Parliament in future.
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