Colborn's Corner: Opting out of the opt-out

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Quentin ColbornThe recent decision by Members of the European Parliament makes it look as if the UK opt-out on the 48-hour week could disappear by the end of the year. While a final decision has yet to be reached, there appears to be a strong chance that MEPs could vote to end the exemption for the UK. Quentin Colborn considers the implications.

'Another example of EU interference with our lives' is one perception of this change while, from the other end of the scale, it could be seen as a victory for those who want to see limitations on employers' ability to ruin workers' family life. Views on this topic will be influenced by both politics and individual experience, but one thing's for sure, feelings run pretty high on this issue.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think few employees are forced to work long working weeks. I accept there may be a few employers where abuse takes place, but I suspect in many of those cases the employer will be no respecter of the law anyway.

"Perhaps we will see a better use of labour with more emphasis on productivity leading to lower average labour costs."

So for the majority of cases, the employee willingly works hours in excess of 48 a week – understandably, from the employees' perspective, they may feel they have no choice but to work long hours if they are to obtain a living wage, but at the end of the day it is their choice. The minimum wage legislation lays a floor for earnings – even though admittedly many think that floor is at an unrealistically low level.

So if the opt-out ends, where will it leave people? From the employers' perspective there will be less flexibility of labour. The option to work additional overtime may be less easy to adopt. So perhaps we will see a better use of labour with more emphasis on productivity leading to lower average labour costs – maybe this won't be a bad outcome for the employer, given the impending recession.

Although it's always a moot point as to why legislation should drive this. Will this see an increasing use of temporary labour to provide a top up when necessary?Possibly, but often the temporary worker does not have the skills to step in to fill in some of the gaps. So my expectation is that employers will simply have to manage the time of their employees better – while at the same time reaping the benefit of lower wage costs.

"Employers will have to manage the time of their employees better – while at the same time reaping the benefit of lower wage costs."

From the employee perspective, I think the main outcome of the change will be a reduction in earnings. Granted there will be an enforced improvement in lifestyle through reduced hours, but is that what people are looking for? I suspect that in the current economic situation most people will be looking to maximise their earnings wherever possible – regardless of the detriment to their personal lives.

Perhaps one of the unintended results of the loss of the opt-out will be individuals, who are under financial pressure, actually reducing their working hours with one employer so that they can take on a second, part-time job – if they can find one. That way their income is maximised by working hours outside the radar of the 48-hour limit.

This legislation is designed to protect employees' health and safety, as a secondary issue it may be seen as an attempt to reduce unemployment. However, as France has seen with their 35-hour week, there is not a direct correlation between working hours and unemployment rates and I would be very surprised if this change results in any significant impact on unemployment.

So what's your perspective of the potential loss of the opt-out? What planning is taking place within your organisation to handle the change? Will it result in more employees or simply a more efficient use of those already in employment? Let's hear your views.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]

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