19th Jan 2020

Lisbon opts for package deal on controversial EU work bills

  • The two labour bills dealing with workers' rights are still causing division (Photo: European Commission)

The Portuguese EU presidency is trying to achieve a deal on two controversial labour law bills by proposing changes preferred by the UK to the working time bill and measures desired by France in new rules on temporary work.

The two major directives dealing with workers' rights have been in the Brussels' legislative pipelines for several years and are still causing deep division among member states.

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That division has been symbolised by the conflict between two camps of states led by the UK - which fights primarily for flexibility in the given labour laws - and France, favouring measures with more social protection..

In a bid to push both camps towards an agreement, Portugal has proposed a package compromise on both of them, hoping for a breakthrough where several previous presidency countries have failed.

In early September, one Portuguese official told EUobserver that Lisbon would not risk yet another collapse of ministerial talks on any of the two bills and would file its own compromise versions, "only if there is a clear possibility to have them adopted."

Now days before EU social ministers meet in Brussels on 5-6 December, the Portuguese presidency spokesman said, "We hope that with this package proposal, we will be able to put this file forward. It's our job to give it a try."

UK v. France

The Portuguese proposal on the working time bill almost fully copies the latest compromise solution put on the table by Finland - then at the EU's helm - in November 2006.

Back then, five countries - France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus – rejected the plan, insisting that it should set a clear deadline for scrapping a provision allowing employees to work longer than the 48 hours per week set by EU rules.

This exemption had originally been only used by Britain. But it gained new allies in 2004 when the central and eastern member states joined the EU.

In a move aimed at appeasing the UK, the Portuguese suggest the opt-out should be kept if countries decide so, without even mentioning the need to phase-out the exemption, as earlier suggested by the Finns.

France, followed by Spain, Italy and some other states are strongly opposed to such a solution, so to bring them on its side, the presidency is suggesting that in case of temporary work rules, their ideas should be fully respected.

In practice, that means that the so-called "grace period" during which temping workers employed by agencies and sent to work in various companies are paid less than workers employed directly by those firms should last no more than six weeks.

Countries such as the UK, Germany, Denmark and Ireland have called for a longer period of six to 12 months or more.

Smart idea?

While the France-led camp accepts the Portuguese idea of linking the two bills, British diplomats have criticised such approach, pointing out that the issues they tackle have "absolutely nothing in common."

For its part, the European Commission has also praised Lisbon for its approach. "It's a smart idea and proposals on both bills are very balanced and close to our position, so we are hoping they will work out," said Katharina von Schnurbein, spokeswoman for social affairs.

The commission has previously warned that if ministers again fail to agree on the working time bill, it will act against countries who do not abide by an EU court verdict stating that time spent by workers "on call" but not actually working should still be regarded as proper "working time."

The new version of the EU bill - if adopted - will define what it means to be 'on call' and when a person can be considered to be working, which is a crucial issue in areas such as social work or health care.

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