EU ministers bow to Brown over working time, temp work

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An agreement on the working time directive and temporary agency work had to be postponed after UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown linked the issue to the EU Treaty and threatened to boycott the signing ceremony in Lisbon next week.

Social affairs ministers had an ambitious agenda at their 5-6 December meeting in Brussels with the Portuguese Presidency crafting several agreements on the working time directive, temporary work, flexicurity and supplementary pension rights. 

But the agreement had to be delayed when Gordon Brown, faced with a defeat on temporary workers’ rights, linked the issue to the Lisbon Treaty to be signed in the Portuguese capital on 13 December. 

“The Council agreed that the best option at this moment was to postpone a decision, in order to further pursue the dialogue,” the Portuguese Presidency said in a statement. It nevertheless “noted that a vast majority of member states had spoken in favour of an integrated solution” between the temporary work and working time directives and that there was “a real margin for political decision in 2008.” 

Concerns over the UK position with respect to agency work were well-known: According to the UK, temporary work is an integral element of the country’s flexible market policy. If agency workers were treated equally to their permanently employed counterparts, the government argued, this instrument would become less useful.

It turned out, however, that there was a clear majority of member states in favour of the agency workers directive and that UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was not going to be able to find sufficient allies to block the proposal in the Council.  

Harlem Désir, vice president of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, described the decisions taken by employment ministers as "the worst possible start for the EU's new labour market policy". Désir added: "It is not acceptable to pretend to define common principles designed to combine greater adaptability for European business and greater opportunities and security for workers and at the same time fail to establish clear legislation on temporary agency workers and on working time." 

UEAPME Secretary General Hans-Werner Müller called the results of the Council "yet another missed opportunity on a number of important pending issues". 

Müller added: "In particular, the persisting minority blockade on the Working Time Directive leaves important unresolved questions on the table, such as the solution of the 'on call time' problem, the reference period for calculating the average working time and the opt-out criteria. The Council's failure to reach political agreement on working time is a worrying signal for European small businesses and extends an already lengthy period of legal and political uncertainty, which is detrimental for workers and employers. This file should remain on top of the list of priorities for the forthcoming Presidencies in 2008."

Annemarie Muntz, President of the Eurociett, the Confederation of Private Employment Agencies, said: "Eurociett has always supported the proper regulation of our industry at a European level. However, the proposal put on the table did not recognise enough the useful role temporary work agencies play to improve the functioning of the labour market and to facilitate the creation of jobs. In addition, with regard to the implementation of equal treatment, the proposal did not allow for enough flexibility at the national level for setting pay rates. Eurociett will continue to work closely with the European institutions and social partners to define what could be an appropriate European regulatory framework for the temporary agency work industry."

ETUC general secretary John Monks criticised British attempts to block the agency workers directive by saying: "We are getting fed up with the UK business refrain being echoed uncritically by the UK government. There is no evidence whatsoever to back this scaremongering." Monks added that "it was a positive sign" that a strong majority of the 27 EU member states was convinced of the urgency of finding solutions.

After 25 years of debate, the EU appeared on the brink of reaching an agreement on a directive regulating temporary work when the UK seemed to soften its position on the issue in July (EURACTIV 26/07/07). 

The Commission's first proposal for a directive on working time dates back to 1982. After years of failed efforts to find an agreement among EU member states in the Council, the draft was withdrawn in 1990 and a new proposal put forward again in 2002. 

  • Both issues are likely to be brought up again within a year, most likely under the French presidency. France has repeatedly spoken out in favour of a level playing field on working time across Europe and equal rights for temporary agency workers. 

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