Staff asked to sign away hours rights

Working week: Labour party donor accused of asking staff to give up right to 48-hour maximum, while others work far longer
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A LEADING business supporter of the Prime Minister has become one of the first company directors to seek a mass "opt-out" from the working time directive, which comes into force today.

Gerry Robinson, chairman of the Granada Group and a big donor to the Labour Party, is asking staff at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London to sign away their right to a 48-hour limit on their working week.

The GMB general union alleged yesterday that managers at the hotel, part of the Forte chain now owned by Granada, were putting pressure on staff to agree to work long hours.

The hotel group said employees were signing voluntarily and pointed out that individual opt-outs were perfectly lawful under the European directive.

Paul Kenny, a regional official of the GMB, said: "We are concerned that somebody who the Prime Minister obviously trusts has let him down so badly on such a key social policy. This legislation is aimed at giving hotel workers a better quality of life and should be implemented in full."

A spokeswoman for Forte, which owns 150 hotels, said consultations with staff had made clear that many wanted to work longer than 48 hours a week. "We are working with our employees to determine what is best for them," she said.

Meanwhile the Confederation of British Industry said that preparations for the introduction of the law were proving "very costly and an administrative headache that business could well do without".

Leading Conservatives said the directive's introduction would make it more expensiveto employ people.

Pat Mancini, proprietor of the Queen's Hotel in Blackpool where Labour is holding its annual conference, said most people wanted to work as much as they were able. "Some work up to 60 hours and some want to work less. At the moment they can decide for themselves."

A survey conducted for the Institute of Personnel and Development found that nearly three quarters of those who worked longer than 48 hours a week did not mind doing so. The institute found that only 1 per cent worked long hours for fear of losing their job.

For one highly paid group of workers the directive will mean longer hours. Lawyers are expecting a wave of litigation over how the law will be applied.

The biggest impact will be on holiday entitlements. From today most categories of workers will have the right to a minimum three weeks' annual holiday - a benefit that will affect 2.5 million employees. In a year's time the entitlement will rise to four weeks and include a further 600,000 people.

More complicated is the application of the 48-hour limit. Employers such as Forte will be able to seek exemptions.

Large groups of workers are excluded from the directive such as trainee doctors, military personnel, police officers and fire-fighters. Also exempt are specified parts of the transport industry such as air, rail, road and maritime sectors.

Where working time is unmeasured or where the individual decides how long they will work, the directive does not apply. Where it does apply - largely to those with identifiable and mandatory hours - the limit will be averaged over a "reference" period of 17 weeks. Even here employers are able to secure a written agreement from individuals that they are prepared to work longer.

If someone feels they arebeing "leaned on" to sign up to longer hours, they can take their case to an employment tribunal. It is thought that in places where there is no strong union presence most employees will sign away their right.

One way or another the Government expects that nine out of 10 workers will not benefit from the legislation.

The Regulations

A minimum break from work of 11 consecutive hours in 24 hours

A daily break if working more than 6 hours

A weekly break of 24 hours, in addition to the 11 hours daily break

A maximum working week of 48 hours including overtime

Paid annual leave of three weeks, rising to four weeks by 1999

Protection for night workers and shift workers, including a free health assessment