Trade unions and employers' groups are set to start a dialogue on the EU's Working Time Directive before the autumn even though they disagree over the scope of the talks. Meanwhile, MEPs remain pessimistic about the chances that the two sides will eventually strike an agreement.
Late last year the European Commission published a paper following a consultation on the scope for amending the Working Time Directive, after previous attempts to revisit it failed spectacularly in 2009.
The next phase in attempting to amend the directive is on hold while the social partners – representatives of workers and employers – decide if they want to get together to try and agree how the law can be changed.
Now the social partners have indicated to EURACTIV that they will be ready to begin a dialogue from June at the earliest, and before the end of September.
Negotiations on amending the directive failed in 2009 over issues such as the opt-out provisions allowing the UK and other countries to go beyond the agreed weekly 48-hour working cap.
Other controversial issues up for review include the extent to which 'on-call' time should be counted as working time under the directive – something doctors and nurses are following with interest – and carve-outs designed to allow employers to pay compensation in lieu of working hours.
Let's talk. About what?
Under EU rules the social partners must send a joint letter to the Commission indicating their willingness to talk. Once the letter is sent, a time limit of nine months will start to run within which the parties can agree together how the controversial directive should be changed.
If the talks fail, the parties can appeal for an extension of time, but the Commission is under no obligation to grant one. The EU executive could go ahead and issue draft amendments to the directive regardless, but it would prefer to achieve broad agreement between the social partners.
There is little sign of that, however. BusinessEurope, the lead social partner representing employers, wants the dialogue to track only those issues on which it believes progress can be made. These include on-call time, but leave the controversial issue of the opt-out off the table.
By contrast the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) – the key voice on the workers' side of the argument – is calling for a comprehensive negotiation, with everything including the opt-out up for discussion.
Despite disagreeing over the scope of talks, both parties are still willing to enter dialogue. Sources within both BusinessEurope and ETUC told EURACTIV that agreement on the terms of dialogue was not a pre-condition of starting talks, and both believe talks will commence.
Parliamentary pessimism prevails
Meanwhile, at an exchange of views between the social partners, the Commission and the Parliament recently, MEPs on the committee for employment and social affairs lined up to express their doubts about any dialogue's chances of success.
"I am no less pessimistic now [about the amendment of the directive] than before, and boy was I pessimistic before! I have heard nothing new and I do not see how this attempt should be more successful," said Hungarian centre-right MEP Csaba ?ry (European People's Party).
Fellow EPP member Thomas Mann (Germany) said, "we know that we are not getting anywhere, it has been the same situation for eight years".
His words were echoed by Danish Socialist MEP Ole Christiansen.
The other social partners in the Working Time Directive are UEAPME, the European association of craft, small and medium-sized enterprises, public employers' group CEEP, and European public sector unions' federation EPSU.