Employers warn on EC review of working time

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Employers' Groups yesterday attacked the European Commission's plans to improve life for UK workers by taking a fresh look at pan-European labour laws.

Brusselslaunched a review of the so-called "working time directive", which seeks to cap the number of hours workers put in each week at 48, because it was worried that British employees were working too hard.

A commission survey found that more than 16 per cent of UK employees work more than 48 hours a week and a third of workers have signed agreements opting out of EU-wide rules. Anna Diamantopoulou, the Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner, said: "We can't be sure that workers who sign an opt-out agreement and ... an employment contract have a real choice."

The Confederation of British Industry, which represents most of the UK's major companies, rounded on Brussels' proposals for reducing companies' and employees' flexibility. "People have the right to say 'no' to long hours ... but they must also have the right to say 'yes'," Susan Anderson, the CBI's human resources policy director, said.

Under the Commission's plans, the law could be changed so that fewer employees qualify for the right to "opt-out" of the 48-hour per week cap. "If Europe is to compete in global markets, we should be looking to make our economy more flexible, not less," the Institute of Directors' James Walsh said. "We are concerned that the real objective of this review is to reduce the number of employees to whom the opt-out is available."

But Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, said the review was "much needed". He added: "Evidence shows that many workers do not know their rights, or even if they do, many often feel pressurised by their employers to sign themselves out of working time protection. It's about time UK workers got the same protection against bullying bosses and long working days as workers do in the rest of Europe."

Brussels plans to present draft legislation to revise the existing rules by autumn.