Strike a blow for Social Europe! was the rallying call, and an absolute majority in the European Parliament backed it, in a vote updating the working time directive.
The parliament voted to scrap Britain and 14 other countries’ right to let employees work a longer-than-48-hour-maximum week if they want to. Next come conciliation talks between parliament and EU governments. But, failing agreement, the existing law stands. The official steering the legislation through parliament, Spanish socialist Alejandro Cercas, said: “Let’s bring about a real reconciliation of family and social life, in a social Europe.” This would see Britain’s exemption from the 48-hour rule end in three years. British Labour MEP Stephen Hughes and a few like-minded UK socialists also voted, at odds with their government, to scrap the opt-outs. “What we will get into, I’m sure, is a debate of how long the phase-out period should be, and what sort of transition period before the opt-out ends, and quite frankly I’ve said to British ministers and other ministers that I’m not really bothered… I don’t care whether it’s 6,7,8 years, as long as in principle we know that the opt-out will end.” Parliament also voted to count all hours on call — for example, for hospital doctors — as working time. Hospitals are being sued for not complying with European court rulings on this. Philippe de Buck of the employers’ group BusinessEurope said: “Clearing up the on-call problem was what started the whole revision of this directive. Then the European Commission wanted to go over more content and now it’s up against it, because a new Commission coming in next year will have to take the problem up again from the starting point.” Labour unions have said that allowing people to work more than 48 hours would put pressure on them to do so and raise the risk of accidents.