THE CONSTRUCTION industry faces losing its optout from the European working time directive in less than five years after a vote by a committee of MEPs last week.
The European Parliament's employment and social affairs committee voted to phase out the opt-out by January 2010, restricting staff to a maximum 48hour working week.
Labour MEPs, led by Stephen Hughes, voted against the UK Government's policy of retaining the key clause to allow maximum flexibility for British businesses. UK Conservative and Liberal Democrat representatives in Brussels support retaining the optout.
The vote came despite attempts by industry umbrella bodies, including the Construction Products Association and the Construction Confederation, to sway politicians through the CBI.
The association's European affairs director Jean Emblin said: 'The trouble is that Labour MEPs are supporting the main socialist group despite going against their own Government's view.We have already had a real fight to get them to see our view on the vibrations directive - so it is really crunch time.'
Mr Hughes said: 'This is a health and safety issue.
We wouldn't expect an opt-out on wearing a hard hat on site and we shouldn't expect one when it comes to long hours.'
MEPs voted that employers could extend the reference period used to calculate the 48-hour average week from four to 12 months under certain conditions. But they also decided that all on-call time, such as a driver at a site waiting for a load, would be considered working time under the rules.
The UK is hoping to maintain a blocking minority to retain the opt-out with the backing of Malta, Slovakia and Germany. But following the vote, the directive will now go before the full European Parliament on May 12 and 13.
The CBI will lobby British MEPs before the Parliament votes. Deputy director-general John Cridland said: 'The CBI is extremely disappointed that the committee has failed to take a balanced approach to the individual opt-out.
'We hope that MEPs will recognise the importance of this to UK employers and their employees.
It is reassuring that the UK Government understands business concerns and continues to stand resolutely against any proposal to get rid of the opt-out.'