Finns unveil plan to break EU working time deadlock

20.10.06 @ 18:09

  1. By Lucia Kubosova

BRUSSELS - The Finnish presidency has unveiled its plan to break a long-term deadlock over the EU's working time rules, suggesting a possibility for countries like Britain to keep their opt-out from the 48-hour weekly limit under stricter conditions.

Speaking in Lahti on Friday (20 October) in the margins of an informal EU summit on energy and innovation, the Finnish social affairs minister Tarja Filatov told journalists that her government would try to convince the bloc's leaders about its new proposal, before social ministers vote on it on 7 November.

Helsinki is the fifth country in the EU's chair in a row trying to reach a deal on the working time ceilings, with Austrian predecessors commenting in June that the two camps that have emerged around the issue were "irreconcilable."

While one camp - led by the UK and strongly supported by most "new" member states - claims people should be free to choose how much they want to work, the other group of countries - led by France - argue that it is primarily a matter of health and safety for employees not to get overworked.

Under the EU's current working time directive, employees cannot work more than an average of 48 hours per week calculated over a so-called "reference period" of 12 months, or they can plump for longer hours under an opt-out scheme which was secured by the UK.

The new Finnish compromise suggests that countries could keep the opt-out under more rigid conditions for the reference period, so that employees could work a maximum of 60 hours a week calculated over just three months.

If they do not make use of the opt-out, the Finnish plan suggests, they should benefit from the more flexible 12 month structure that gives them more freedom to factor in holiday periods and work-intensive seasons.

"We have tried to use the flexicurity issue when we made our proposal so that we can understand that in different countries there are different situations," said Ms Filatov.

"And we created a sort of menu solution that those countries who like to use the opt-out, they in the beginning can have the possibility but they don't get all the flexibilities we have in the directive."

"So it's a choice between the opt-out with some criteria and longer and more flexible reference periods," she added.

EU court triggered rules overhaul

A review of the currently applied working time law is needed following a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which said that the time some professionals spend "on call" should be regarded as proper "working time."

The decision has direct implications for pay and rest conditions for doctors, other medical staff, firemen, social workers and some other professionals.

Currently, three quarters of EU member states do not abide by the ECJ ruling, which prompted Brussels to propose a different definition of on call time and so change the directive.

The European Commission is gearing up to take a legal action against most of them, with the Finnish minister urging on Friday that the national governments should try their best to avoid being taken to the court by agreeing to a revised directive.

"It is a balanced proposal," a social affairs commission spokeswoman commented on the fresh Finnish blueprint, suggesting that its sensitive wording and flexible approach could prove crucial for member states to reach a deal in November.

Last year, the then UK presidency suggested phasing out the opt-out in the future but some of its key critics - like France or Sweden - insisted on a clear date.

The Finnish proposal also includes an idea of gradual ending of the opt-out - and points out that it should be treated as an exemption rather than as a rule - but leaves it up to the individual governments to tackle the matter in discussion with the social partners at national rather than EU level.