MEPs deal blow to EU compromise on working time

17.12.08 @ 17:55

  1. By Lucia Kubosova

STRASBOURG - The European Parliament has voted to force Britain to remove its controversial opt-out from the EU's weekly limit on working hours, striking a blow to the long-sought deal among the member states on the maximum amount of hours Europeans can safely spend at work.

  • The European Court of Justice has ruled that time spent on call by doctors be considered part of their working hours (Photo: European Commission)

A majority of MEPs agreed that the current provision applied mainly by the UK and some new member states should be scrapped three years after adoption of the directive. The Wednesday (17 December) vote delivered 421 votes in favour of the move against 273 MEPs opposed, with 11 abstentions

Additionally, deputies ruled that there should be in future no exemptions from the currently applied health-and-safety-related cap of a maximum 48-hour working week calculated over a reference period of 12 months.

Finally, the parliament reinforced its previous decision that the time spent on call by workers - particularly doctors, firemen or social workers - should be calculated as a proper "working time," even if they are not called in to work.

"This is a triumph for all the political groups in the European Parliament - for the whole Parliament. It is a victory for the two million doctors and medical students across the EU," said Spanish centre-left MEP Alejandro Cercas, who had filed the amendments to the member states' position.

It was precisely due to the definition of working hours that the EU executive embarked on changing the working time rules in 2002, following several rulings by the bloc's Court of Justice stating that on-call time should be regarded as a regular working hours.

Given the significant implications for public spending that this ruling might impose on national governments, as well as the lack of professionals in the most affected sectors, Brussels introduced a list of changes but it took member states several years to adopt them.

In June, 27 ministers finally managed to move ahead in a compromise package that involved Britain agreeing on concessions regarding more generous conditions for agency workers in return for the possibility of keeping its opt-out from the 48-hours-per-week limit.

Trade union demonstrations

Thousands of trade union members marched on the European Parliament in Strasbourg ahead of Wednesday's decision.

"The democratic legitimacy of today's vote is beyond question," Carola Fischbach-Pyttel, secretary-general of the European Federation of Public Service Unions, commented following the vote.

But the UK's business minister, Pat McFadden, told the BBC it would be a mistake to end the opt-out during an economic downturn when people might need to work extra hours.

Several UK Conservative and eurosceptic deputies also argued against the move favoured by a majority of MEPs.

Derek Clark from the UK Independence Party said: "It will mean higher unit costs and more job losses as firms lose competitive edge, which is why France abandoned its 35-hour week."

Business organisations echoed the negative sentiments. "We are extremely disappointed by the position adopted by the parliament today, and by its inability to understand the serious effects that this vote will have on the European economy, at a time when it is already harshly hit by the economic crisis," said Arnaldo Abruzzini of Eurochambers, the European chamber of commerce.

Given the different versions of the working time bill agreed by the EU's two law-making bodies, the parliament and the Council (the member states) will next year launch a "conciliation procedure" in a bid to strike a common deal.

EU social policy commissioner Vladimir Spidla said: "The commission will do everything it can as an honest broker to help the European Parliament and the Council find a solution that allows them to reach a satisfactory agreement."