Finns get to grips with working time

An new proposal from the Finnish presidency on the stalled Working Time Directive would allow the UK to maintain its opt-out from the directive’s 48-hour cap, but introduce a 60-hour cap for all.

On 20 October 2006, the Finnish Presidency presented a compromise proposal for a revised version of the Working Time Directive. The proposal picks up key elements from the Commission’s 2003 draft but adds a few elements to make it more acceptable for the UK: 

  • The 48-hour “soft cap”, out of which workers can opt out if their country’s government decided so, is to remain;
  • if social partners agree, the average working time can to be calculated over a 12-month period;
  • the 48-hour cap is to be complimented by a 60-hour “hard cap”, which would be binding for all countries, with no possibility of an opt-out. The average working time for this cap is to be calculated over a six-month period;
  • no cap would apply for company executives, emergency service workers and farmers; 
  • on-call times would not be treated as working time, and;
  • the Directive would have to be reviewed after another three-year period, with more measures intended to bring down working time looming if the revised directive proves ineffective in doing so. 

In December 2003, the Commission began a statutory review of the 1993 Working Time Directive (93/104/EC, amended on 22 June 2000 by Directive 2000/34/EC). The review set out to amend a number of arrangements that effectively rendered the Directive ineffective in certain cases: 

  • The 'opt-out' clause in Article 18, which permits member states not to apply the maximum 48-hour limit at all, on the basis of voluntary agreements with individual workers, and;
  • the possibility, in Article 17, to extend the reference period for calculating average working time from four month to one year, on the basis of an agreement between social partners. 

Furthermore, the review has to take into account a number of rulings by the European Court of Justice dealing with on-call time, in particular with medical personnel. In all cases, the Court ruled that, under the present directive, time that doctors and nurses spend on call must be treated as working time (see Euractiv, 20 September 2006). Some member states, and in particular the UK, argue that treating on-call time as working time would put pressure on their public health systems and finances. 

After a first reading in Parliament, the Directive has been stalled, because member states were unable to find agreement on a common approach to the issues. In particular, the British position of maintaining the country's opt-out and opposing any general cap to working time short of the UK's 78-hour limit has made a rapprochement difficult. Some member states' governments, such as France's and Spain's, believe that the Directive will not achieve its target of assuring a sustainable work-life balance throughout the EU as long as Britain maintains its opt-out. The directive is in the co-decision procedure, which means that no single member state can veto the draft law or opt-out of application. 

The Finnish Presidency has pledged "to finalise the Working Time Directive during Finland’s Presidency".

The Finnish Presidency has convened a special meeting of the Employment and Social Affairs Council, which will deal exclusively with the Working Time Directive. The meeting will take place on 7 November 2007, in Brussels. It will be prepared by a meeting of member states' Permanent Representatives on 3 November 2003. 


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