Green party

Green vote: EU to shorten British week

11 February 2004

Euro-MPs have voted to end British employees being forced to work the longest hours in Europe.

The European Parliament today rejected Britain's opt-out of the Working Time Directive, calling on the Commission to produce clear proposals for bringing the UK into line with rest of the EU and resolve the status of 'on-call' workers.

London MEP Jean Lambert, who voted for the proposal to end Britain's opt-out, welcomed what she described as a 'clear signal' that the EU considers work-life balance a crucial element of a 'social Europe'.

The Green Euro-MP, who is a leading member of the parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee, said: "Workers are under enormous pressure to conform to a work culture that says you're not dedicated to your job unless you're at your desk by 8am and still there at 10pm - and employers all too often exploit this culture.

"Such long hours cause terrible problems though - not just socially, for individuals and families, but in terms of health and safety and productivity and economic costs to employers and the UK generally."

"Today's vote makes clear that the UK must play by the same rules as the rest of Europe and act to end this work, work, work culture in the UK."

The Working Time Directive gives workers the right to daily rest periods of 11 hours, breaks during working hours, a maximum 48 hour working week and four weeks minimum annual holiday.

In 1993 the UK negotiated an opt-out, allowing member states to ignore the 48-hour weekly maximum where workers give their consent - a provision which has been exploited by employers seeking to force staff to work long hours whether they want to or not, in spite of legal guarantees protecting employees from exactly such pressures.

"Long hours are often the norm in the UK culture, and workers feel pressured to conform even if their employers aren't technically forcing them," said Mrs Lambert.

"Everyone knows that many workers find themselves faced with 'an offer they cannot refuse' by employers who expect regular overtime - whether paid or unpaid - or for their workers to accept contracts which effectively sign away their rights. Even the DTI admits this whole area needs tightening up."

"This long-hours culture is bad for individuals and for society as a whole: it can be a real threat to health and safety whether through exhaustion or burn-out."

British Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had sought to keep the opt-out, arguing that it gives greater flexibility and that people need to work overtime to earn extra money.

"Some of those who often shout loudest about the need to abolish anti-competitive measures seem content for the UK to compete on weaker labour market conditions," added Mrs Lambert.