After years of deadlock, employment ministers in the European Union reached an agreement Monday on rules concerning working time and temporary workers.
At issue: hourly work week limits
The agreement came after the 27 voting members established a qualifying majority for approval of the new measures that will impact millions of European workers and employers. At issue in the votes were common rules for allowing a work week of over 48 hours and the rights of workers from temporary agencies.
Breaking a stalemate
Efforts to revise EU working time rules had stalled since November 2006 over opt-outs from a 48-hour weekly maximum, especially in Britain, which championed the cause of loose rules.
"We believe flexibility and choice is important for our economy and for workers themselves," said British Employment Minister Pat McFadden as he arrived for ministerial talks in Luxembourg.
"We have three million more people in work now than 10 years ago in the UK," he added. "This has been helped by our flexibility for working people."
EU working time rules also needed to be revised because an EU court had ruled that most member states are not respecting existing regulations, which it interpreted as requiring on-call time to be counted as working time.
The compromise settlement, made under the direction of the Slovenian council president, puts the average maximum number of hours worked per week at about 48 hours with some exceptions in individual industries where up to 60 or 65 hours is possible under certain well-laid out conditions. This limit can still be exceeded by means of tariff agreements.
Temporary workers gain rights from day one
Guidelines for contract work were likewise negotiated. Temporary workers, estimated to number nearly eight million in the EU, will now have the same rights as regular employees in the same enterprise beginning from day one. If a national agreement about a longer "grace period" was reached between management and unions, as is the case in Britain, this would not be the case.
Slovenia's compromise proposal found little favor with the European Trade Union Confederation ahead of the talks.
"We ask you to convince your fellow ministers that ignoring the concerns of workers and trade unions would seriously harm the perspective of a sustainable social Europe that will receive the support of its citizens," ETUC head John Monks wrote in a letter to the presidency.
EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla responded, saying that the proposals would still be an improvement on the status quo.
The two guidelines must be formally approved by the European parliament.