EU seeks to break deadlock over work week

7th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, Nov 7, 2006 (AFP) - The European Union sought Tuesday to overcome two years of deadlock over reforming working time legislation, with Britain leading a camp in favour of flexibility and France urging more worker protection.

BRUSSELS, Nov 7, 2006 (AFP) - The European Union sought Tuesday to overcome two years of deadlock over reforming working time legislation, with Britain leading a camp in favour of flexibility and France urging more worker protection.

EU states have been divided since 2004 about a revised employment law that would specify maximum working hours and how companies could negotiate with their employees for an opt-out from a limit of 48 hours per week.

Pressure is building on member states to stop wrangling and reach a deal because 23 of them are estimated to be in breach of current rules and face the threat of costly legal action.

Hoping to break the deadlock, the EU's current Finnish presidency convoked the special meeting of labour ministers to consider a set of compromise proposals carefully calibrated to strike a delicate balance between protecting workers and giving employers the flexibility they need.

The Finnish proposals would limit the use of opt-outs from EU legislation imposing a 48-hour maximum work week but would make rules on on-call work time more flexible.

Currently, the opt-out is widely used in Britain and is used only on a sector-by-sector basis in other countries.

Under existing rules, an individual worker has to agree with the employer that the maximum weekly working time will not apply.

Finland's compromise proposal aims to ensure that employees voluntarily sign away their right to a 48-hour cap to their work week and would also require employers to keep records on how much time employees work to make sure the rules are followed.

However, France, along with Italy and Spain, are pushing for Britain's cherished opt-out to be gradually phased out, a prospect London rejects outright.

"There are two different views of Europe at stake here, whether we allow for the opt-out to be retained or not," said French Labour Minister Gerard Larcher.

"We have to try to come up with common rules for the European social model, a basis in other words that stands in the way of unfair competition," he told colleagues during the meeting.

Britain has led efforts to retain the opt-outs, arguing that companies should be left to negotiate with employees and that limits on working time would damage economic growth and competitiveness.

France has argued for a progressive repeal of opt-outs in the name of greater protection for workers who unions argue are vulnerable to unfair demands from employers.

Britain's secretary of state for trade and industry, Alistair Darling, warned that no deal would be possible unless deeply diverging views were taken into account.

"We have to recognise that our pre-positions around this table differ and if France, Spain and Italy insist on this position then we might as well call it a day at lunch time," he told the meeting during the morning session.

The clock is ticking to reform the current working time legislation because 23 member states are currently breaking EU rules on doctors' on-call times, according to a ruling by the European Court of Justice.

EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla stressed that "today's meeting is in my opinion the very last opportunity to reach an agreement on the proposal", warning that the European Commission would have to launch infringement procedures against the members that are currently breaking EU rules.

If Finland fails to broker a deal, then the matter could remain unresolved for some time because Germany, which takes on the EU's rotating presidency for six months at the beginning of next year, has said it not will take on the dossier.

That would leave it to Portugal to try to find a deal when it takes on the EU's six-month rotating presidency in July 2006.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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