The European Parliament voted to abolish the working time opt out which allows British employees to work more than an average of 48 hours per week.
If the European Commission and European Council approve the European Parliament's position, employers in the UK may have to stop using the opt out by 2011 (the latest date the UK could implement any new European Directive on working time). Employers need to take no action at this stage.
The Working Time Directive sets down a maximum working week of 48 hours for workers in the European Union.
In 1993 the UK negotiated an "opt out" from this part of the Directive which permits member states to allow employees to agree with their employers that they will work longer than 48 hours per week.
A review of the Working Time Directive conducted by the European Commission in 2004 criticised the UK's use of the opt out.
Earlier this year, in return for the UK's agreement to the Directive on Temporary Agency Workers, the European Council agreed that member states would be allowed to retain the opt out.
However MEP's sitting in the European Parliament took the view that the opt out supports a 'long hours culture' and should be scrapped. They therefore voted against the European Council's proposal to retain the opt out.
The UK Government has confirmed its support for keeping the opt out.
The process of European law making means though that this vote is not the end of the matter. The European Parliament, European Council and European Commission will now have to try and reach a common position over the next few months before the Council's proposals can become law.
The only comfort for employers is that if the opt out is eventually abolished, the reference period for calculating the number of average hours an employee can work under the new proposals would be increased to a 12 month period, rather than the current 17 weeks. This would give employers more flexibility because employees could work longer hours during part of the year, if they work fewer hours at other times.