New row looming over working hours

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The Independent Online

Controversial moves to curb the use of the opt-out from the 48-hour week will today spark a fierce row, amid claims that the new efforts to end the culture of long working hours will add to costs and destroy jobs.

Controversial moves to curb the use of the opt-out from the 48-hour week will today spark a fierce row, amid claims that the new efforts to end the culture of long working hours will add to costs and destroy jobs.

The plan, to be discussed by the European Commission, would mean that, where collective bargaining agreements covering terms and conditions exist, firms would have to negotiate with their staff on the opt-out via unions. Currently businesses can deal directly with their staff.

The proposal would also prevent employers from asking workers to sign the opt-out with their initial contract of employment, giving them a "cooling off" period. And it is expected to allow for the possibility of assessing whether people are working more than 48 hours per week over a period of up to 12 months.

Meanwhile the European Commission also expects to put forward a new definition of "on call time" to deal with the working arrangements of junior hospital doctors among others.

Today's proposal falls short of recommending an abolition of the opt-out demanded by the Trades Union Congress. However the Government is likely to fight the clause on collective bargaining.

The final wording of the proposal will be crucial because it remained unclear last night how much the proposal would extend the unions' negotiating power in practice.

The Confederation of British Industry said curbing the opt-out was "unacceptable".

But the general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, told the commission: "UK workers are going to be left exposed to dangerous long hours working by these weak reforms."

A spokesman for the British government emphasised that "the right of individual choice" was crucial on working hours.

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