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EU targets long hours work culture

Rules allowing workers to opt out of the 48-hour week are set to be tightened up.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- European workers could find themselves better protected from long hours if European Commission proposals to revise the Working Time Directive are accepted.

The Commission unveiled plans this month to tighten up the conditions in which employers can opt out of the European Union's maximum 48-hour week.

In a statement, it said the aim of the proposals was to protect employees from adverse health and safety risks and to "find a balance between workers' rights and firms' legitimate interests."

Under the new system, employers and unions would have to reach a collective agreement on working hours in order for the opt-out to apply.

Companies would also be forced to count on-call time towards an employee's overall total and would be prevented from asking workers to sign an opt-out agreement at the time of signing an employment contract.

While individuals could still opt out and work up to a maximum of 65 hours a week, they would have the right to withdraw their consent at any time. The period of calculation for the Working Time Directive would be extended from four months to a year.

"The proposal will address shortcomings in the present system," said Commission Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Stavros Dimas.

"It is a balanced package of measures that protect the health and safety of workers whilst introducing greater flexibility and preserving competitiveness."

The Commission's recommendations still have to be approved by the European Parliament, while they have faced a hostile reception from business leaders, who fear legislation could create new layers of bureaucracy, and union officials, who claim the new rules don't do enough to protect workers.

The British government has also indicated it will seek to defend its opt-out, which has existed since the introduction of the 48-hour week in 1993.

Cyprus and Malta, which joined the EU earlier this year, also have general opt-out agreements while Germany, Spain, France and Luxembourg have negotiated opt-outs for specific employment sectors such as health or catering.

In a statement, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said it would fight "tooth and nail" to oppose further restrictions on working hours.

"This is an attempt to broker a compromise that has completely backfired," said CBI Deputy Director-General John Cridland.

"It is good that the Commission is allowing the opt-out to remain, but it is quite wrong to give trade unions a veto over what should be an individual decision. The proposals would undermine the individual's right to choose the hours they work."

Philippe de Buck, general secretary of European business association Union des Industries de la Communaute europeenne (UNICE), said the proposal was "unnecessarily complicated."

"European policy-makers should avoid any move towards cutting working time further or decreasing working time flexibility," said de Buck.

"Flexibility of working time is crucial for companies' competitiveness and also in the interests of workers."

But European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) General Secretary John Monks said millions of workers were in danger of becoming more vulnerable to long and unhealthy working hours.

"I am very disappointed in the Commission," said Monks. "It has largely caved in to pressure from certain Member States and employers' lobbies on key issues. Employers' lobbies are complaining about new limitations on the individual opt-out, but that is a smokescreen. The fact is that individuals without union help will be under huge pressure to work longer.

"The Commission has sided with the general employer offensive on working time. Now the Commission has failed in its duty, the ETUC expects the Parliament to confirm its earlier stance and protect Europe's citizens from longer and longer working hours."

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