It has been reported in the Telegraph today that David Cameron will demand that Britain be allowed to ignore most of the employment rules imposed on the UK by Brussels as part of his renegotiation with the European Union ahead of Britain’s in-out EU membership referendum. It is thought that he will seek an exemption for the UK from the working time directive and the agency workers directive. These two directives are variously seen as key pieces of legislation protecting employee rights and totemic of the interference of Brussels in the UK economy.
The working time directive guarantees terms such as a maximum 48 hour week and four weeks’ paid holiday per year, plus rules on the number of hours of rest for shift workers.
Ministers and leading doctors have argued that the directive puts medical care at risk because it increases the number of patient handovers between doctors, and decreases the number of hours of clinical experience that junior staff receive. For example, those training to be surgeons lose 3,000 hours by the time they qualify as a result of the directive, equivalent to 128 working days. Recent European Court of Justice judgments dictate that doctors must count their time on call as work, even if they are asleep for much of it. Without the rules created by the working time directive it might be possible for medical professionals to work longer hours, a move which the Government believes would dramatically improve patient care.
It is not yet known whether the move would allow companies to ask employees to work unlimited hours, or whether Mr Cameron would replace the directive with new, tailored British legislation.
The agency workers directive grants agency workers the same pay, holidays, maternity leave and training as permanent staff after 12 weeks’ work. It is thought that this directive would cost the British economy £1.8 billion a year – an extra £2,493 a year for a small business, increasing to £73,188 for large firms.
Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB, wrote to all 27 EU member states to say that “British workers are already less well protected than many of their counterparts across the EU, and we urge EU governments and institutions not to allow further erosion of this situation.” He went on to warn that “Any undermining of these rights would not only be detrimental to British workers but would create unfair competition for other EU member states based on a race to the bottom”.
Certainly this concern has been echoed in the French and Belgian media where it is reported that Mr Cameron’s attempt to opt out of EU social and employment legislation will likely face strong opposition amongst fears that this would further undermine the highly regulated labour markets of France and Belgium.
In the longer term, it is thought that Mr Cameron wants a line in a protocol, to become enshrined in EU treaties at a later date, stating that employment law is a national competence. This would permanently repatriate sovereignty over workplace rights to Britain.