Opt-out to hit construction

By Claire Symes01 May 2008

The European Parliament's plans to amend the Working Time Directive include removing the 48 hour working week opt-out clause. Supporters claim that the changes would improve health and safety, as well as enhance work-life balance, but the construction industry claims that it will have serious implications for the sector. Claire Symes reports.

The right to opt-out of the working time Directive's (2003/88/EC) 48 hour working week could be scrapped if changes currently going through the European Parliament are adopted. Last month Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted in favour of the proposals, clearing the way for the plans to be presented to the Council as CE went to press.

The current Directive provides workers with the right to an 11 hour rest period between working days, regular breaks, a weekly working time of no more than 48 hours, four weeks minimum annual holiday and limits on night time working. Existing legislation enables individuals to choose to opt-out of the 48 hour working week – a clause that has benefited workers in the construction industry.

Under the proposals put forward by the European Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee, the right of individuals to opt-out would be phased out over the next three years. The change is favoured by a number of member states including Sweden, Hungary, France, Finland, Greece, Spain and Belgium.

However, the European Commission is against removal of the opt-out and there is also strong opposition in the UK, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia and Malta. The level of opposition to the plan means that the Council is expected to reverse the decision of the MEPs when it votes on 3 June, forcing the amendments into a lengthy conciliation processes.

“It could be many years before the European Parliament can enforce removal of the opt-out clause from the WTD. But, removing an individual's option to work more than 48 hours per week – in both the short and long term – means that European contractors will lose their flexibility and will be less competitive than companies based outside of Europe,” said Construction Products Association European affairs director Jean Emblin.

“The amendments do include extending the reference period, over which the 48 hour week is calculated, from 16 weeks to 12 months to cope with seasonal peaks in activity, which are common in the construction industry. However, the removal of the opt-out, combined with the current construction skills shortage, means that the change could have a significant impact on the industry.”

FIEC has said that while its members do support limiting derogation from the 48 hour working week, they are concerned about the impact on smaller construction companies. FIEC members also believe that the decision to work longer hours should be made through an agreement between the employer and employee and not through a collective agreement.

Other proposed amendments to the WTD include changes to the definition of ‘on call time’ and the ‘inactive part of on call time’. These changes would mean that any time spent on call, even if a worker is free to rest and carry on with normal family life, would count as working time. “Changes to on call time would further limit the construction industry's flexibility and add a considerable administrative burden to smaller companies,” said Ms Emblin.

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