Many thousands of people who had jobs at the start of 2008 will be facing up to the prospect of being without work in 2009. In a time of serious and deepening recession we should be doing all we can to help those who want to work to do so. However, in the European Parliament that philosophy is quite thin on the ground, even though some MEPs will themselves be out of a job after the European election in June.
This week the parliament, sitting in Strasbourg, will once again be debating the Working Time Directive opt-out, which allows employees who want to work more than the statutory 48-hour weekly maximum the chance to do so. Since the opt-out was introduced ten years ago it has been constantly under attack from socialists.
The Labour Government, seeking to portray itself in a business-friendly light, was committed from the outset to maintaining the opt-out. Ironically, the foremost opponents in the European Parliament of the Government’s position have been Labour MEPs. Back in 2005, Tony Blair held a meeting with Tory MEPs in his role as holder of the Council presidency, during which he implored us to support his Government’s policy because he couldn’t count on his own party’s representatives to do so.
For several years the Council has been deadlocked over this issue, despite the European Parliament voting in 2005 to abolish the opt-out. Britain has led a blocking minority of countries opposed to ending the opt-out. The impasse was resolved in the summer but it came at a high price. France, the current holder of the presidency and a leading voice in favour of scrapping the opt-out, agreed to preserve the opt-out if Britain would remove its objections to the Agency Workers Directive.
Gordon Brown succumbed to this ‘deal’, which effectively grants temps
exactly the same employment rights as permanent workers. But no-one
seemed to have asked the hundreds of thousands of people who work as
temps, or their employers. The result will surely be a contraction of
the temporary labour market just at the time when thousands of jobs are
being lost. Temping can no longer be part of the recovery of the labour
market. We have lost the flexibility that temping affords our economy,
we have effectively denied people who want to work the chance to do so
and we have undermined employers who would like to create
opportunities. Once again, the EU has shown its true colours. The only
jobs worth creating seem to be jobs for the boys.
Back to the Working Time Directive. Because of the deal earlier this
year, the opt-out should be safe, but that’s not necessarily the case.
If a majority of MEPs votes in favour of abolishing the opt-out the
European Parliament and the Council will have to enter a conciliation
procedure which is likely to result in the opt-out being ditched,
either immediately or in a phased manner. Even if the parliament backs
the Council’s compromise, there will still be a 60-hour maximum working
week averaged over three months.
Britain is one of 14 EU countries (out of 27) that either make the
voluntary opt-out available to workers or are seeking to introduce it
into national legislation. Predictably, many of those countries are new
member states that see labour market flexibility and productivity gains
as advantages rather than embarrassments.
The Working Time Directive is typical of the EU’s prescriptive and
uniform approach to workplace regulation. It’s also just one of many
hundreds of damaging health and safety rules emanating from Brussels
that act as a brake on our economy. Thankfully David Cameron is
committed to withdrawing Britain from the Social Chapter from which
John Major won us an opt-out in 1992 but to which Tony Blair signed us
up in 1997. This is an essential step if we are ever to break free from
the debilitating effects of EU regulation on our country.
There are, of course, opponents of the opt-out in Britain – not just
Labour MEPs but their union paymasters too. Words like ‘Dickensian’ and
‘exploitation’ are bandied around in a cynical fashion. Naturally,
unions are keen on job protection, not job creation – that is their
raison d’être. They know that the opt-out weakens their position,
undermines their authority and might even oblige their members to work
a little harder.
However, there are already plenty of safeguards in place in UK and EU
law to protect people in the workplace, and they will remain even when
we abandon the Social Chapter. It is not only naïve for politicians to
assume that people aren’t capable of understanding when they’re being
exploited, it is morally questionable for us to place limits on
people’s lawful activity.
At a time of economic crisis the last thing we should be doing is further restricting the right to work and earn money.