Plan for Legal 78 hr working week scuppered - for now


January 6, 2009 19:55 | By Kartika Liotard and Steve McGiffen

The recent rejection of the proposed changes to the European Union Working Time Directive by a full session of the European Parliament represents a huge victory for working people. The revision was proposed because the EU Council of Ministers, which directly represents the member state governments, has moved well to the right since the directive was originally adopted.

The directive is intended to protect workers' health by fixing a maximum working week of 48 hours. The battle has for the most part been fought over three issues: the 'reference period' over which the average 48-hour working week may be calculated; the issue of on-call time and whether it should be counted as normal working time; and the question of 'opt-outs'.

Everyone recognises that under exceptional circumstances some workers might sometimes have to put in more than 48 hours in a week and that it might therefore be necessary to impose an average 48 hours, allowing deviations in a particular week to be made up by shorter hours in another. The question is just how flexible this should be. In a climate in which unemployment seems set to rocket as the financial crisis has its impact on the real economy, anything which weakens workers' rights clearly needs to be fiercely resisted. And recent decisions by the European Court of Justice in relation to the rights of workers and the rights of their employers - in the cases of Viking and Lavall, for example - show clearly whose side the EU's supreme judicial body is on.

The text endorsed by the Council of Ministers, known as the 'Common Position', would have allowed the maximum working week to be averaged over a year, rather than four months as is currently the case. It would have defined some of the time a worker spends on call as 'inactive on-call time' which would not be counted in the maximum working hours or in calculating rest periods. And it would have continued the practice of allowing individual workers or groups of workers to exceed the 48 hours by agreement with their employers, should this have the approval of their national government - the so-called opt-out. It would have allowed collective bargaining to be bypassed in such instances by legislative act, which in some cases would not even require the approval of parliament but merely a government decree. In the worst case, it would have been permissible to 'agree' a 78- hour working week or a 13-hour working day. With rising unemployment and the intimidatory tactics increasingly adopted by employers in their labour relations, many such 'agreements' would no doubt resemble the Corleone family's 'offer you can't refuse'. Temporary workers would not even enjoy the minimal protections which the revised directive would leave intact. For anyone working for an employer for ten weeks or less, there would be no maximum working time. What we could have expected to see would be every seasonal worker in Europe being hired, in future, for nine weeks and six very, very long days.

MEPs' minds were focused the day before by a demonstration outside the European Parliament building in Strasbourg. This definitely played a role in the victory. The Parliament has repeatedly shown that it can get rather nervous in the face of mass trade union protest. Since the beginning of the century it has scuppered EU plans to 'liberalise' European ports, and prevented the Commission from forcing local authorities to put passenger transport services out to competitive tender.

Now it has voted against the member states' plans to undermine the Working Time Directive, with its 48-hour maximum working week. It has voted to scrap the right of member states to opt out of the directive's provisions, a right insisted on by the UK and enthusiastically applied there, as well as in parts of central and eastern Europe. No exemptions from the 48 hour working week will be permitted, though employers will indeed be allowed to average this out over 12 months. And all time spent on call by workers such as doctors, firefighters, essential maintenance personnel and social workers will be counted as working time.

Of course, the result of this rejection will be the ruination of European industry. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse will ride through our decaying cities. Every time any government has enacted an effective piece of health-and-safety legislation since the days when industrial revolution Britain first banned the employment of very young children in coal-mines, this same song has been heard. The European Commission and the governments of the EU's member states, whose complicity in the mismanagement of the international financial system is about to result in massive unemployment across the continent, will now have a scapegoat. We are expected to take seriously the proposition that allowing (or rather forcing) workers to put in more hours somehow creates jobs!

The game is not quite won, as now the European Parliament must go into a 'conciliation procedure' with the Council, which represents the 27 member states. But given the overwhelming majority - 421 to 273 - which backed the Parliament's position, its essential features are likely to remain intact.

Former Commissioner Peter Mandelson, now UK "Business Secretary", believes that the British 'opt-out' gives workers 'freedom of choice'. He will fight hard to retain it. This 'freedom' has always been the cry of the most reactionary elements. It relies on the fiction that employers and employees stand in an equal relationship with each other. If the boss asks you to work 65 hours a week, you can always say no. And if you write to Father Christmas, he'll bring you whatever you ask for.

British workers, who put in the longest hours in the whole of Europe, must join with their continental colleagues to defeat any such bid.

As well as generating jobs, restricting hours contributes to safer workplaces, safer hospitals, and safer roads. It helps parents to maintain the kind of homes which allow children to grow up into socially responsible adults. It gives people the chance to lead full lives, not only as workers but as active citizens with time to fulfil their responsibilities in a vibrant, democratic society, and take advantage of the opportunities this presents.

The 48-hour maximum working week is not some kind of Christmas present from a beneficent EU. Like all progressive employment and social legislation, whether European or national in origin, it is the result of a committed struggle by trade unionists. This fight should be maintained. Until the conciliation procedure is completed, and the Council of Ministers and European Parliament have agreed a text, there is always the chance that some elements of the Council's proposal will be included. The international trade union movement must make it quite clear that the price of industrial peace is respect, and that working men and women will not work themselves to an early grave to pay for a crisis which is in no part of their making.

Kartika Liotard is a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands. As well as editing spectrezine, Steve McGiffen is a consultant to Kartika Liotard and assistant professor of international relations at the American Graduate School of International Relations and Diplomacy in Paris.