Ministers seek deal on key EU labour laws

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EU employment ministers hope to break a double stalemate on temporary agency workers and the working time directive when they meet in Luxembourg today (9 June), paving the way for the European Commission to present a comprehensive social package in three weeks’ time. 

UK officials in Brussels familiar with the matter are hopeful that a deal on both working time and temporary work can be clinched at the 9 June meeting of EU employment and social affairs ministers in Luxembourg. 

The agency workers issue is the less disputed of the two following an agreement struck between the TUC and the CBI – the UK social partners – last month, which was endorsed by the UK government. UK officials say that it was quite unusual for a British government to consult trade unions and employers first, and stressed that this makes it more likely that an agreement can be reached with countries more oriented towards social partners, like Germany and France. 

The UK agreement differs from the Commission’s proposal in that it only grants agency workers entitlement to treatment equal to that of permanent workers after 12 weeks working with the same company, whereas the Commission proposes a so-called grace period of just six weeks. 

In some EU countries, such as the Netherlands, grace periods are even longer – up to six months. Meanwhile others, including most countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, grant equal treatment from the first day.  

An agreement on reformed Working Time rules will be harder to find. The directive includes a derogation allowing individual member states to impose rules allowing workers to opt out of ‘working time’. Several member states, and most notably the United Kingdom, have taken advantage of this derogation, annulling the core EU working time rules for a large proportion of their workers.

Following a series of judgments by the European Court of Justice (see ‘Links’) which stipulated that on-call time must be considered working time, since 2005 EU presidencies have been trying to reach an agreement among member states to reform the rules, ending a situation where many EU countries are in permanent breach of applicable case law. 

At today’s ministers’ meeting, Slovenia will present a compromise prepared by the Commission, based on drafts that have already failed under previous presidencies. The proposal maintains the 48-hour weekly limit over four months, but it allows for contractual arrangements under which this limit could be lifted for limited periods of occupation. 

Over a period of three months, workers would not have to work more than 60 hours, except where there is a sectoral agreement. This derogation was introduced at the demand of the German government, which had its health system in mind. When part of on-call time is counted as working time, weekly working periods can be as long as 65 hours. Under no circumstances should workers have to work more than 78 hours a week. 

The compromise has been endorsed by the UK governement, but it has already encountered criticism from countries who believe in tighter labour law, led by France and Spain. 

The Slovenian Presidency has chosen the approach of its Portuguese predecessors by tying working time and temporary workers up in a single package to give the proposal a better chance of being adopted. 

Regarding working time, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) wrote a letter to Slovenian Labour Minister Marjeta Cotman in which it expressed concern "that the current set of proposals falls short of protecting workers against the health and safety hazards of long working hours, introduces an overall diminution of protection without proper safeguards, does not in any way provide for a proper balance between flexibility and security and will create incentives for avoiding and evading collectively agreed solutions to flexibility needs of companies".

The issue of equal treatment of agency workers has been on the EU agenda since the early 1980s, when the Commission first proposed a directive granting them equal rights to those of permanent workers.  

However, the directive never came into being, mainly due to the resistance of consecutive UK governments, which feared that the country's highly deregulated labour market might not benefit from granting statutory rights to agency workers. 

In May 2008, UK social partners and the government broke the deadlock and agreed to grant equal treatment to agency workers, clearing the way for an EU directive on the issue  (see EURACTIV 21/05/08). 

Working time is an almost equally long-standing issue. The 1993 Working Time Directive stipulates that workers must not work more than an average of 48 hours a week, calculated over any four-month period. However, it allows for broad derogations and needs reviewing following a number of European Court of Justice rulings (see 'Issues'). 

  • 11 - 12 June 2008: Employment Week in Brussels, focusing on a range of labour market issues. 
  • 2 July 2008: Tentative date for the presentation of the Commission's 'New Social Agenda', a broad package of analyses and proposed measures touching on a large range of issues beyond labour market questions. 
  • Revised proposals on temporary workers and working time will have to be agreed by the European Parliament in the co-decision procedure. 

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