The European Parliament has voted to end the UK's opt-out of laws banning people from working for more than 48 hours a week, but a leading employment lawyer has said that the opt-out is likely to remain in place.
"My message to businesses is: don't panic," said Tom Flanagan, an employment law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM. "This was an opinion of the European Parliament. It is not a decision of the Council of Ministers, so it's not yet a removal of the UK's opt-out."
The European Union's Working Time Directive says that employers cannot ask people to work for more than 48 hours a week, but the UK won the right to opt out of that provision. EU authorities have been discussing whether or not to extend the 15-year exemption.
The UK Government is keen to retain the opt-out, believing that it suits the UK's work culture, which generally involves longer hours than that in other EU member states.
Though the Parliament's vote is a blow to the Government's desire to keep the opt-out in place, Flanagan said that it is not the final word on the issue.
"The Council of Ministers will have to knock out a deal early in the New Year and while we may lose the opt-out, I don't think that our European partners would do that to us," said Flanagan. "The Czech Republic is taking over the presidency and they are Eurosceptic so are not likely to follow this kind of line."
The EU's 27 member states have until May to agree a deal through the Council of Ministers, but if they fail to do so the new agreement will fail and the status quo, including the opt-out, will remain in place.
The Government believes that the opt-out makes the UK economy more productive. Think tank Open Europe has said that ending the opt-out would cost the UK £57bn between now and 2020, more than £2,300 per household.
Business lobby group the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) condemned the vote. "This vote is misguided. Trying to ban people from choosing to work more than 48 hours a week is a mistake, and would replace opportunity with obstruction," said CBI deputy director general John Cridland.
“Many people want to work longer hours, in professions ranging from manufacturing to medical research," he said. "They do so to further their careers or earn extra money, or to help their firm through difficulties. They should be able to do so if they choose."
Flanagan, though, said that he believes that workers will still be able to choose to work longer hours even if the opt-out is lost.
"It would become unlawful to put a clause into a contract which makes a person opt out of this," he said. "But if someone wanted to work longer, they could. They just couldn't be required to."
Flanagan also said that the working week is measured over such a long period that very few jobs would actually currently count as lasting longer than 48 hours in a week.
"The measurement is over a 17-week period. People are talking as if this affects many people, but there are not that many jobs where you do those hours over such a long period," he said.
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