UK seeks more changes in working hours plan

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The Independent Online

Unions and employers were embroiled in a fierce dispute yesterday over plans by the European Commission to change the way staff can opt out of the 48-hour working week.

Unions and employers were embroiled in a fierce dispute yesterday over plans by the European Commission to change the way staff can opt out of the 48-hour working week.

The UK Government, which won several key concessions, welcomed some elements of the package but promised to fight for further changes to the text. Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said: "We have a number of strong allies and will work with them to ensure this proposal continues to be improved."

The plan, which must be approved by EU ministers, would oblige firms to negotiate opt-outs via unions where collective bargaining agreements covering terms and conditions exist. At present companies can ask staff directly to sign an opt-out from the 48-hour week. Critics say the new measure would give unions a veto over employees' actions.

But Stavros Dimas, the European Commissioner for social affairs, said that, in practice, almost nothing would change. "We have tried to be neutral. We do not try to encourage or discourage trade union representation," he said.

More welcome for the Government is a proposal to allow the length of a working week to be calculated over 12 months, allowing seasonal workers to put in longer hours in busy periods.

Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC which wants the opt-out abolished, described it as "a disappointing decision that will satisfy no one".

The CBI said it would fight "tooth and nail" against restrictions on working hours.

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