A vote at the Employment and Social Affairs
Committee of the European Parliament could signal an end to the British opt-out
from the Working Time Directive. Of particular significance was the unanimous
vote of British Labour MEPs to kill it. This is in sharp contrast to the
determination of New Labour in Whitehall to keep the opt-out – at the expense
of the British working class. The resoluteness of our MEPs, in behaving like
real Labour representatives, has rightly been described as an “embarrassment”
to the UK government.
To sum up: New Labour was determined to
keep the opt-out, which enables workers in Britain to put in more than 48 hours
a week. The decision is supposed to be voluntary, but of course employers can
put all sorts of pressure on workers to do the time. There are actually three
million British workers who have ‘chosen’ to work more than 48 hours.
In any case the original Working Time
Directive was seen as a health and safety measure. The whole point about health
and safety is that you can’t opt out. The rules have to cover everyone. It is a
proven fact that accidents at work happen when workers are tired.
Productivity also falls off as the working
day lengthens and concentration sags. Long hours working is a product of poor
management and a determination to increase output through super-exploiting the
workforce rather than investing in new technology.
Opt-outs in general are seen as a
transitional measure. The whole point of such Directives is to provide a level
playing field between competing capitalist nations inside the EU and prevent a
race to the bottom. So opt-outs are supposed to be phased out over time,
usually within three years, but British capitalism seems determined to hang on
this one for ever.
It is obvious that European capitalism
cannot compete with the poorest countries in the world, where products are made
with child labour, slave labour and pitifully low wages. European countries can
only pay their way in the world by adopting a high productivity strategy to
make their exports competitive. But where’s the incentive for employers to
invest in raising productivity when they can make profits by super-exploiting
their workers instead?
The retention of the opt-out is actually
part of a squalid backroom deal. New Labour grudgingly implemented the Agency
Workers Directive, determined to give it the narrowest reading possible in
Britain. On the continent, for instance, agency workers can be paid while they
are between assignments and may get the protection of collective bargaining
agreements at their place of work. Not here.
In return Britain was to retain the opt-out
on working time. In fact British lobbying brought a significant weakening to
the Working Time Directive for workers in the rest of Europe, increasing the
possible hours a week for European workers to 63. It is shameful that extreme
right wing anti-working class measures for the EU are lobbied for behind the
scenes by New Labour.
The CBI and the bosses are crying that the
terms of the agreement have been broken. We don’t care. Nobody asked the
working class about the deal. It’s a nice change for Labour MEPs to be doing
something useful. We hope they have the gumption to stick to their guns when the
New Labour leadership and the rotten bosses’ lobby starts to lean on them.
The full European Parliament takes a vote
on the opt-out on December 17th. The European TUC will be lobbying
Strasbourg the previous day. Make sure your Labour MEP votes to end the UK
opt-out. It’ll be a small victory, but one well worth having.