George Osborne may be breathing a small sigh of relief. He is still facing the wrath of companies claiming the National Living Wage will decimate them, but now British business has rediscovered its favourite bogeyman: EU bureaucrats.
Specifically, the target of their ire is the European Court of Justice. It ruled yesterday that mobile employees – home care workers, electricians, travelling salespeople, etc - are at work when they’re travelling to their first job and going home from their last one. Therefore, that time has to be included in the 48-hour working week imposed by the EU’s Working Time Directive.
The Luxembourg-based court found in favour of the employees of a Spanish security company, who had collected their vehicles from now-shuttered regional offices but now drive to their first appointments straight from home.
‘Once again, a faraway court is taking decisions that could impact business prospects, job creation and economic growth in the UK,’ fumed Adam Marshall, policy director at the British Chambers of Commerce.
‘This ruling will surprise and concern many UK businesses, and indeed public sectors employers, who had been following the law to the letter,’ said Allie Renison, the head of EU and trade policy at the Institute of Directors. ‘The ECJ has become a red-tape machine, tormenting firms across Europe.’
And businesses were indeed concerned. ‘It's another additional cost and burden that has been sprung upon us,’ Pimlico Plumbers’ general manager Dominic Geraldi told the BBC. ‘It's going to be a massive impact on business - it could be catastrophic.’
UK workers can currently opt out from the 48-hour part of the Working Time Directive – and in practice many do pretty much automatically when asked to by their employers. But British employers will still have to make sure their workers are getting a rest period of at least 11 hours.
Another issue that is now suddenly in affected companies’ ‘vested interest’ is where employees live, Alison Clements, a managing associate at employment law firm Lewis Silkin (which writes our Workplace Rights column) told MT.
For those with staff who cover a certain region, she advises having a ‘contractual provision specifying where they can live, within reason, and that they have to seek permission if they want to move away [from the region].’ Companies may then have to move staff themselves, ‘if feasible’.
Meanwhile, political trickeries remain. David Cameron has previously said preserving the Working Time Directive opt-out is one of his priorities in renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU ahead of the in-out referendum.
As a general rule (although by no means a cast iron one), businesses support being part of the single market, but dislike the reams of regulation that come with it. So extra yards of red tape like this will make companies less inclined to support staying in, or even tilt their opinion against it.
But on the other side of the political spectrum several trade unions have said they would actually support a Brexit if Cameron manages to negotiate away workers’ rights. If the prime minister is serious about keeping Britain in the EU, he has very fine line to tread.