Democrat - January-February 2009 (Number 112)
EU's Working Time Directive
Talk of a victory over an aspect of the Working Time Directive distracts from the pernicious substance of this piece of EU legislation.
The Directive first surfaced in 1993 with the headlines declaring a cap on the working week of 48 hours. This in Britain, many decades after first a 44 hour week then a 40 hour week was won and even lower working weeks gained since in particular industries. Britain under the Major Government declared an opt-out from the cap on 48 hours.
In 2000 the Directive was amended and included the following important small print:
Article 3 on Daily Rest states: “…every worker is entitled during each 24 hour period, to a minimum rest period of eleven hours consecutively…” Put the other way you work 13 hours a day, sleep say 8 hours which leaves 3 hours to eat, relax, and, travel to and from work. Further, Article 5 on Weekly Rest: “…every worker receives during each seven day period, a minimum of twenty-four hours uninterrupted rest…” There is now no stipulation that Sunday should be a day of rest as it was in the 1993 version of the Directive. The following sentence had been deleted: “The minimum rest period … shall in principle include Sunday…”. Holidays like Christmas Day are also classified as normal working days.
The upper limit is not just a straight 48 hours each week. The 48 hours is the average taken over a 4 month period. This means some weeks you can work 32 hours and other weeks 56 to 58 hours and be on call as required. Now there is talk of the annualisation of hours where average hours are spread over one year, which could well mean wider disparities in hours worked. This could amount to being laid off for six months and working all hours the rest of the year – very convenient for employers in times of a recession. On top of all this there are plenty of opt-outs from the 48 hour cap based on a host of exceptions to the rules.
In May last year the European Parliament voted for the 48 hour week and in November the Employment Committee decided to overrule Britain’s opt-out. This was endorsed by the full European Parliament on 17 December. During this debate the United European Left-Nordic Green group (GUE/NGL) of MEPs pointed out that the maximum working week of 48 hours was already stipulated 85 years ago by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) agreement in 1919.
On the face of it Britain has apparently lost the opt-out on the 48 hour week. However the lost opt-out is to remain in place until 2012 and still has to be negotiated between the European Parliament and Council of Employment Ministers. The ministers may decide otherwise and ignore the European Parliament decision and present yet another form of the Directive and delay matters further.
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, parachuted back from Brussels, said the initial Employment Committee's decision was "not surprising" and added “we will continue to stand firm to protect the opt-out to the Working Time Directive's 48-hour maximum working week." He said the opt-out was "essential to Britain's labour market flexibility" adding: "People must remain free to earn overtime if they wish and businesses must have the flexibility to cope during busy times." At the time Institute for Employment Rights director Carolyn Jones retorted: "This is typical employer-speak. What they call flexibility is, in reality 'flexploitation.'
“They want to be able to work staff as hard as they want without any controls whatsoever.” John Monks said tamely that “Social Europe” was still alive because the European Parliament voted to end Britain’s opt-out from the 48 hour week. He also stated the Directive “should not be weakened”.
It should be carefully noted that the French Labour Code had a general 35 hour week with a maximum of ten hours a day compared with 13 in the Directive. Two days rest were stipulated including Sunday which was sacrosanct in French law. The Directive and French President have used the Directive to undermine and challenge the French Labour Code.
The objective of the Directive is to extort maximum exploitation by sweeping away national laws and conditions which have been negotiated, struggled for and won by trade unions and others. The main lobby in Brussels consists of the European Round Table of industrialists (ERT). It is they who are behind the drafting of this and other directives. In place is the European Court of Justice which has made clear with a ruling on collective bargaining and other rights that it is not on the side of trade unions, their members and those who work for their living. Further, if the EU Constitution (aka Lisbon Treaty) were put in place with the Charter of Fundamental Rights attached then the EU could override national laws of employment and negate any labour conditions of service.
See also history behind the struggle for a shorter working week