BRUSSELS - Bloomberg
Britain won a European Union standoff over labor rules as France and other opponents eased off a four-year-old push to enforce a 48-hour workweek in the country.
Labor ministers backed a compromise in Luxembourg yesterday, over objections from Spain and some other countries, to let Britain to keep an exception to the EU's maximum weekly hours for employees who sign waivers. The measure still faces a battle in the European Parliament.
Britain preserved its brand of labor-market flexibility backed by a 5 percent unemployment rate, versus 7.1 percent for the 15 countries using the euro currency and 6.7 percent for the 27-nation EU overall.
“The agreements we have reached today provide the right way forward for Europe,” Britain's Business Secretary John Hutton said in debate among ministers. “They represent the best available balance between the need for fair treatment for employees and essential flexibilities for enterprises.”
Painful deadlock resolved:
The accord also resolved a deadlock of six years on treatment of temporary workers. Britain paved the way May 20 in an agreement with unions and business groups to give temps the same pay as permanent staffers, after 12 weeks on the job.
The EU measure mandates equal treatment, including in some benefits such as maternity leave, from the first day, unless industry and labor representatives agree otherwise.
The measure, hammered out in a debate lasting from lunch Monday to the early hours of yesterday, sets a 60-hour weekly cap, with some exceptions, for employees who waive the 48-hour standard. Industry and labor groups also can negotiate a different national ceiling.
As a safeguard against employer coercion, workers would not be eligible to sign waivers in their first month at the company, and cannot be penalized for declining to do so. The EU had pushed for the restrictions after a survey found a third of British employees had signed such “opt-out” forms.
A bloc including Spain, Belgium and Greece resisted the compromise as a step back from the EU goal of greater security for workers. Italy, whose previous administration had pushed to phase out the British waivers, was part of a group of countries who said that, without yesterday's compromise, the practice would continue with fewer constraints.
“There will be greater guarantees for Europe's workers of tomorrow,” Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand of France, which agreed to the compromise after opposing the British position the past four years, said in the debate. The governments now must “redouble efforts” to win the agreement of EU lawmakers, Bertrand said.
The EU Parliament previously voted to abolish Britain's waivers, with backing even from British Labour Party members which went against their government at home. Both the lawmakers and the ministers have to agree on an identical text, to make it law.
The governments gave themselves a hand in keeping medical and some other costs in check, by agreeing to reduce the hours credited to doctors and nurses when they're resting at the hospital, “on call” in case they are needed.
The measure responds to court decisions finding that time on call must count toward time regulations, threatening to force governments to hire more medical and other staff spending long hours on call. States that do not comply would face further lawsuits from workers as well as the European Commission, the EU's executive agency.
The provision also faces a challenge in Parliament, which voted in its earlier debate to credit all mandatory time in the workplace.
On-call periods won't have to count toward the hourly limit, when the employee is in an “inactive” state, the ministers agreed yesterday. Still, like many parts of EU labor law, governments have the option whether to apply that provision. Bertrand said France won't.
Workers also can get an increased maximum, to 65 hours, if that counts some on-call time.