The Big Question: What is the 48-hour week and should Britain be forced to apply it?

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The Independent Online

What is the 48-hour week?

It is shorthand for the EU's Working Time Directive, a law written in 1993 which lays down health and safety standards, including a maximum weekly working time of 48 hours, rest breaks, and annual holiday. The law is in the news because it is being updated and Britain is under pressure to embrace the measure in full. Britain, along with Malta, is alone in applying an across-the-board "opt-out" from the legislation, though Luxembourg, Spain, France and Germany have used the measures to exempt specific sectors such as hotels and catering.

Nevertheless, it is the UK's opt-out which riles several of its partners on the Continent because they believe Britain is undercutting their minimum standards of worker protection. France's labour minister, Gérard Larcher, argued that "the 48-hour work week is something that is absolutely vital". He wants a cast-iron commitment to end the opt-out by a specific date.

Yesterday, when EU ministers debated the matter, Italy, Spain, Greece and Cyprus backed France in demanding abolition of the opt-out. The dispute illustrates the depth of the ideological divisions across Europe over working hours.

How does the UK opt-out work?

British workers who want to put in more than 48 hours a week have to sign a form agreeing with their employers to work longer (though there is still a 78-hour ceiling for them). Firms must keep records to show they are obeying the legislation. Unions worry that employees face undue pressure to waive their rights. A fifth of UK employees do unpaid overtime. And the legislation does not apply to large numbers of people such as managers, media and emergency workers.

Not surprisingly, employers and unions are split on the issue. The British Chambers of Commerce argues for continuing the opt-out. The Trades Union Congress claims there would have been only a minor impact on firms if Britain's opt-out was scrapped under the terms of a proposed compromise. It argues that fewer workers are now exceeding the 48-hour limit - 3.3 million instead of 4 million eight years ago - and that technical changes in the law would have removed a further 1.5 million from the reckoning.

Why does it matter?

Clearly, the law matters to the workers who are affected by it. But the dispute over the opt-out has assumed a much wider political significance. The British Government is determined to keep the exemption, which it sees as one of the cornerstones of the UK's flexible labour market. Ministers point with pride to Britain's economic growth over the past decade, arguing that its approach has been vindicated because the UK has outperformed the big continental economies for most of that time. They say that adding restrictions is madness in a globalised economy. Many defenders of the opt-out also have a philosophical objection to the legislation, arguing that people should have the right to work as long as they want.

On the other side, France, which has even stricter working laws than the EU measures stipulate, sees the working time directive as a key symbol of the principle that the EU exists for the benefit of working people and not just big business. The unions point to the dangers of Britain's long-hours culture. Their sentiments are echoed by the European Commission, which argues there is a negative effect of long working hours on the health and safety of workers. Many British workers seem to feel pressured by the trend towards "presenteeism", one which poses a threat to family life.

Critics of the UK's long-hours culture say foreigners seem to work harder or more effectively over fewer hours. Why else, they say, is the UK's productivity poor compared with France or Belgium? Even the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has admitted Britain has a problem with productivity.

How did the law come about?

The 48-hour week is part of the EU's social agenda, which was famously opposed by the Conservative government of the 1990s. Under Prime Minister John Major, the UK argued that the law had been wrongly introducedas a health and safety measure (a tactic that meant the UK could not veto it). However, the government's challenge failed in the European Court of Justice and the working time law came into force under Labour in 1998 with an opt-out. Since then the European Commission has downgraded social protection as a priority and concentrated on boosting growth and jobs.

What about doctors?

Two judgments from the European Court of Justice have provoked headaches by ruling that time spent by junior hospital doctors asleep but on call should be counted as part of their working week. Germany faces big financial problems because of the ruling and the UK is also among those countries accused of being in breach despite its opt-out.

The implications of the law for health are estimated to run to £250m per annum in the UK alone. Tony Blair has also identified the judgments as a factor in holding back reform of the National Health Service. Some governments want to modify the EU law so that only the hours actually spent on the wards would count towards working time. But with an overall political deadlock on the issue, Britain and Germany remain among 19 nations in breach of European law over on-call time.

What happens now?

A legal and political mess. Britain is in no mood to surrender and, in an expanded EU of 25, has enough allies to make sure it cannot be outvoted. But France is showing no sign of compromise either. There are moves to try to hive off the hospital doctor issue and solve it alone. But they appear doomed.

In the meantime, no fewer than 23 of the EU's 25 countries are in breach of some aspect of the working-time law, and the European Commission will have to decide whether to take them to court. That threat might help to force an eventual compromise. If not, lawyers at the European Court in Luxembourg will certainly find their working hours increase.

Should the UK abandon its opt-out from EU working time laws?

Yes...

* British industry should concentrate more effort on improving efficiency and productivity than on defending long hours

* The long hours work culture in the UK is destroying family life and putting workers' health and well-being at risk

* Britain should not undermine its EU neighbours' efforts to offer minimum standards of worker protection

No...

* People should be allowed to do overtime if they want

* Our flexibility to compete would be hobbled if the UK had to surrender its opt-out

* Britain's economic growth has been better than that in continental economies and there must be a link to looser regulation of working hours

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