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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

Government has failed workers by refusing compromise on Working Time

– Hollow victory on Working Time Directive means UK workers can still be forced to sign away their right to a 48 hour week

Negotiations between the European Parliament and the European Council – the last of which were held last night – have failed to reach a compromise position on the Working Time Directive. The European Parliament voted to end the UK’s opt-out from the Directive in December 2008, but after weeks of negotiations the UK Government has refused to back down.

The Directive, which is intended to protect workers’ health and safety, limits working time to 48 hours per week on average over a 12 month period and MEPs want the opt-out from the Directive phased out over three years.

Nearly five million people in the UK regularly do unpaid overtime, on average completing £4,955 worth of free work a year and more than half of British workers say they have experienced symptoms of overwork and burnout. Indirect results of long hours include tiredness on the roads, with symptoms of stress and fatigue often worse than being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Reducing the UK’s long hours could also help to solve other health problems such as excessive alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and obesity.

In her report I Must Work Harder? Britain and the Working Time Directive, London Green MEP, Jean Lambert, argues that excessive working hours puts workers’ mental and physical health at risk, as well as endangering those around them.

Commenting on the negotiations, Jean Lambert MEP, who is a Member of the European Parliament’s Employment Committee, said:

“The Council’s behaviour is deeply frustrating. It’s disgraceful that the UK Labour Government, a party with its roots in fighting for workers’ rights, has fought to reduce protection for workers in this instance and left them open to exploitation by employers.

“To use the recession as an alibi is merely a smokescreen, since they have never had any intention of losing the opt-out. Parliament has offered compromises in half a dozen meetings over the last few weeks, but an intransigent Council refused to even consider them and stayed behind a red line of never ending the opt-out. This was despite Parliament offering a solution, for example, for a definition of on-call time for emergency services that would have ended the need for the opt-out.

“Greens support the European Parliament position for a maximum of a 48 hour average working week. This Directive already provides a good degree of flexibility for both workers and employers, while respecting the health and safety of workers and the general public.

“There should be no opt-outs on health and safety legislation. These opt-outs also create an unacceptable situation where EU countries compete on labour standards, reducing protection for workers in the long term.”

Notes to Editors

Member States opposed to compromise: UK, Germany, Malta, Estonia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Poland.

Jean Lambert’s report I Must Work Harder? Britain and the Working Time Directive is available to download here.