Working time opt-out at death’s door once more

Personnel Today reports on the alarm expressed by businesses on the European Parliament’s vote to end the maximum working week opt-out. The statistics quoted are telling enough as to how its end would effect the UK workforce – around 1 in 10 employees work more than the 48 hour working week, but for more than 9 in 10 employers.

By way of reminder, a maximum working week of 48 hours applies to European workers, unless they opt-out in writing. Employees cannot be compelled to opt-out, or treated less favourably if they do not. Britain has fiercely defended its citizens’ right to opt-out, a right chosen by very few other countries.

The idea of a maximum working week is anathema to many British workers, even those who would never approach the number of hours. Although other Europeans have long used it as a method of increasing employment levels, here it is seen by many as a socialist policy and even, gulp, a bit French. Simply on a tabloid-sniggering level, the British are no fans of French working practices.

The worse thing is that the perception of a Europe exceeding its remit in a way that dictates against contractual freedom will add fuel to the fire of Euro-scepticism already so rampant in the UK. The rapporteur appointed by the Parliament to report on the measure said that the vote was an opportunity to reconnect with citizens. Indeed: and on these shores it will have the opposite result. This is a great shame, as much of the good work and benefit done by the European institutions goes unnoticed and uncelebrated. Votes such as this, especially given the absolute failure by the EU to recognise that the rejection of the EU constitution was a statement on its failure to engage with its electorate, demonstrate the arrogant blindness of European legislators. Stephen Hughes, social policy spokesman of the European Parliament Socialist Group, speaks volumes as he talks of “our European nations making a great civilization”, “British citizens [being] allowed to enjoy the civilised standards of their fellow Europeans”, compared to “Korean conditions in our factories.” He imposes a social agenda imported from other countries onto a vocally unwilling public who would hold no truck with him at home. He is also disingenuous enough to say all this, then represent the move as health & safety legislation, despite a raft of existing laws which already prevent employers working their employees until they’re so tired injury results.

Freedom of contract is central to the common law system and British working sensibilities. There may be one or two more US readers of this post than usual (thanks to Charon and Blawg Review), and this level of state intervention would (I’m guessing, and would love to be told) be absolutely unacceptable there. To them, and to many British workers, this is the European Union at its worst, and could well be looked at in many years’ time as a first development in a move away from Europe for Britain. The huge promise for peace and prosperity presented by the European institutions could be thrown away on the back of social engineering by policitians who don’t even begin to recognise how utterly disengaged they are from their electorate.

I’m not a Euro-sceptic, and don’t usually use this blog as a soapbox, but some years ago I was talking to an MEP’s agent at a barbecue and asked him what it was an MEP actually does, day-to-day. He responded by taking offence, and the incident has rankled with me ever since. Europe is a Very Good Thing, but won’t last much longer over here if it doesn’t get very smart, very fast, to how it is perceived.

Sorry everyone for the rant, the blog will be back to dry and fusty law reporting soon.

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