Bankers caught in 48-hour trap

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In the book Monkey Business, two associates at a US investment bank in the 1990s describe the trials of 100-hour working weeks. Their counterparts in the City of London could work fewer than half those hours after the European parliament this month voted to scrap UK workers' ability to opt out of the working time directive.

The directive, introduced by the European Union in 1993, limits the average time worked per employee over 17 weeks to 48 hours. If the decision is approved by the Council of Ministers, some people in the City could find their hours drastically curtailed as soon as 2008.

Elizabeth Slattery, a partner in the employment practice at London law firm Lovells, said investment banks were likely to feel the effects of the 48-hour limit more than other employers.

"Banks get most people to sign the opt-out, so they don't need to worry about 48-hour weeks. In future they will need to work out whether people are exceeding that," she said.

A 2002 report by Cambridge academics on the effects of the working time legislation on 13 UK companies, two of which were investment banks, found 90% to 100% of the banking staff had signed the opt-out. One bank even included it in the employment contract.

Despite this, banks appear sanguine about the prospect of the opt-out clause ending. Stephen Sidebottom, European head of HR at Nomura and chairman of the City Personnel Group, said relatively few bank employees would be affected. "There aren't massive numbers of people who work more than 48 hours a week when averaged over a long time," he said.

Even if the opt-out is abolished, senior bankers who work 70 hours or more a week will be able to carry on, said Sidebottom. The directive does not apply to staff with "autonomous decision-making powers", normally taken to mean executives.

This might explain why senior investment bankers in continental Europe appear unaware of the directive's existence. Two senior French M&A bankers told Financial News they had never heard of it.

Instead, it is junior bankers at vice-president and associate level or below who are most likely to fall under the 48-hour restriction. Nicholas Squire, a partner in the employment group at law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London, said the definition of "autonomous decision-making powers" was tighter than most banks would hope.

"To be considered autonomous you need control over when you do the work and the reality is that most people do not," said Squire.

A spokesman for a German bank in Frankfurt said it avoided restrictions on the working hours of junior employees by ignoring them. "People work the same hours as before; the directive is not closely monitored," he said.

The indications are that HR directors in London are thinking the same way. The head of HR at a US bank said removing the opt-out would not be a disaster unless the government policed it.

However, their complacency may be misplaced. Slattery pointed out that a conviction in a magistrates' court for exceeding the working time limit carried a maximum 20,000 fine.

If a case went to the crown court, the fine would be unlimited. Junior bankers said their job would be unworkable if they were limited to a weekly average of 48 hours. One said: "The essence of this job is flexibility. We are driven completely by the client and the client's needs - if they need us to work long hours we do."

There is no guarantee the opt-out will go. The British government has promised to fight its abolition. Even if it is curtailed, there are likely to be several sweeteners: for example, lawyers said working hours would be averaged over a 52-week period instead of 17.

In the meantime, bankers appear keen to assert their right to work long hours if they want to. An online poll of 186 middle and back-office bankers by Morgan McKinley, a recruitment firm, found 60% disapproved of an enforced 48-hour week.

One associate in the mergers and acquisitions department of a US bank in London said pay was commensurate with hours worked. He said: "If you want to work less than 60 hours a week, you should not work for an investment bank. We're rewarded for long hours in terms of financial compensation and career prospects."

It was a view echoed by the head of HR at a German bank in London who said: "This legislation isn't aimed at people who are working long hours in the City and paid lots of money for it. It's their choice."

Readers of Monkey Business may be less eager to acquiesce. As enforced 100-hour weeks take their toll, the authors succumb to everything from weight gain to sleep deprivation. Shorter hours may be a small price to pay.

Our May 2 and May 16 issues reported that Merrill Lynch Research had doubled its notice period from three to six months. Merrill Lynch states that this information is incorrect and its standard UK notice period is three months.

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