Working-time deal eludes ministers

Overworked [Shutterstock]

Labour ministers broke up their 7 November 2006 summit with an agreement on working time further away than before. As a result, the British opt-out is there to stay and the Commission will begin infringement proceedings against most member states.

Britain, which is at the helm of the camp wanting to keep the opt-out, got support from most of the ten new member states’ governments. Germany, the country holding the EU Presidency during the first half of 2007, is unlikely to make another attempt to resolve the opt-out issue. Gerd Andres, state secretary in the German ministry of labour and social affairs, said that the opt-out must remain an option, adding: “Social Europe will not perish if we allow exceptions.” Andres is a member of the German Social Democrat party (SPD). 

Germany is also one of only two countries unlikely to face an infringement procedure for failing to transpose the ruling of the Court of Justice concerning on-call time in the medical professions. The Court ruled that, under the present directive, this time must be counted as working time. In principle, ministers agreed that, in order to avoid excessive costs for most member states’ health systems, the rules must be changed. 

The camp, lead by France, which opposes the UK opt-out, will however not allow for the directive to be amended without a clear timeline for opt-out removal. 

Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimír Špidla warned ministers that he will have to launch legal action against 23 member states if the present directive remains unchanged. Addressing the French-led camp, Špidla added that he considered a negotiation strategy a paradox which, in the name of cutting down working time, would result in the old rules staying in place. These allow, under certain conditions, weekly working times up to 78 hours. 

John Cridland, deputy director-general of the UK employers' association CBI, welcomed the outcome of the meeting, saying: "The ability for individuals to opt out from the 48-hour working week is a vital part of the UK's flexible labour market." 

Hans-Werner Müller, secretary-general of the small- and medium-sized business association UEAPME, said: "The current situation concerning working time in Europe is unbearable both economically and politically, with 23 out of 25 member states being in breach of the current laws. Swift actions and workable rules are needed, especially as far as the definition of 'on-call' working time is concerned. If no agreement can be reached on the Directive as a whole, it may be wise to deal with 'on-call' working time separately, in order to stop legal uncertainties and burdensome costs for SMEs." 

The meeting, which was initially scheduled to last until 20.00, and possibly much longer, was called off late in the afternoon when it became clear that there was no common denominator between two camps of member-state governments determined, respectively, to save the opt-out possibility or to dispose of it. A proposal for a compromise put forward by the Finnish presidency failed to accomodate either side.

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