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Working Time – Britain’s Opt-out to End?

Fri 28th Nov 2008

A vote at the Employment and Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament could signal an end to the British opt-out from the Working Time Directive. Of particular significance was the unanimous vote of British Labour MEPs to kill it. This is in sharp contrast to the determination of New Labour in Whitehall to keep the opt-out – at the expense of the British working class. The resoluteness of our MEPs, in behaving like real Labour representatives, has rightly been described as an “embarrassment” to the UK government.

To sum up: New Labour was determined to keep the opt-out, which enables workers in Britain to put in more than 48 hours a week. The decision is supposed to be voluntary, but of course employers can put all sorts of pressure on workers to do the time. There are actually three million British workers who have ‘chosen’ to work more than 48 hours.

In any case the original Working Time Directive was seen as a health and safety measure. The whole point about health and safety is that you can’t opt out. The rules have to cover everyone. It is a proven fact that accidents at work happen when workers are tired.

Productivity also falls off as the working day lengthens and concentration sags. Long hours working is a product of poor management and a determination to increase output through super-exploiting the workforce rather than investing in new technology.

Opt-outs in general are seen as a transitional measure. The whole point of such Directives is to provide a level playing field between competing capitalist nations inside the EU and prevent a race to the bottom. So opt-outs are supposed to be phased out over time, usually within three years, but British capitalism seems determined to hang on this one for ever.

It is obvious that European capitalism cannot compete with the poorest countries in the world, where products are made with child labour, slave labour and pitifully low wages. European countries can only pay their way in the world by adopting a high productivity strategy to make their exports competitive. But where’s the incentive for employers to invest in raising productivity when they can make profits by super-exploiting their workers instead?

The retention of the opt-out is actually part of a squalid backroom deal. New Labour grudgingly implemented the Agency Workers Directive, determined to give it the narrowest reading possible in Britain. On the continent, for instance, agency workers can be paid while they are between assignments and may get the protection of collective bargaining agreements at their place of work. Not here.

In return Britain was to retain the opt-out on working time. In fact British lobbying brought a significant weakening to the Working Time Directive for workers in the rest of Europe, increasing the possible hours a week for European workers to 63. It is shameful that extreme right wing anti-working class measures for the EU are lobbied for behind the scenes by New Labour.

The CBI and the bosses are crying that the terms of the agreement have been broken. We don’t care. Nobody asked the working class about the deal. It’s a nice change for Labour MEPs to be doing something useful. We hope they have the gumption to stick to their guns when the New Labour leadership and the rotten bosses’ lobby starts to lean on them.

The full European Parliament takes a vote on the opt-out on December 17th. The European TUC will be lobbying Strasbourg the previous day. Make sure your Labour MEP votes to end the UK opt-out. It’ll be a small victory, but one well worth having.

This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.
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