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Europe moves to preserve maximum workweek

Amid concern that fatigue leads to accidents, the European Union parliament voted Wednesday to abolish loopholes that allow member states to evade the  48-hour maximum workweek.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Long-haul truckers driving through the night. Exhausted surgeons with scalpels. Overworked firefighters rushing from blaze to blaze.

Amid concern that fatigue leads to accidents, the European Union parliament voted Wednesday to abolish loopholes that give member states — especially Britain — a way around the bloc’s 48-hour maximum workweek.

The dispute strikes at the heart of a growing debate within the EU on balancing labor and leisure, profits and safety.

The measure would get rid of a clause that allows employees to work longer hours if they agree with their employer to do so. It still needs backing from EU governments to become law, and Britain may have enough countries on its side to block it.

British industry cites 'freedom of choice'
Still, Wednesday’s vote is likely to embolden Britain’s strong Euro-skeptic camp in a crucial year of referendums on a proposed European constitution that envisions ever closer European integration.

In London, Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the proposed labor changes interfere with the “freedom of choice of the average British subject and that is something we’ve got to stop.”

“France and Germany are saddled with these rigid labor policies and huge unemployment, and here we are with the most successful economies in Europe, we’ve got the most flexible labor market, people earn good money — and here is Brussels trying to do away with it,” Jones said.

The left-leaning Guardian commented that Britons saw EU lawmakers as a “Eurocracy throttling the life out of Britain” — but it went on to defend aspects of the new labor proposal.

Countries like France and Sweden have long believed in social protections aimed largely at guaranteeing balance between work and private life. In fact, France had a 35-hour workweek — much shorter than the EU’s 48-hour maximum — until lawmakers watered down that legislation in March.

Britain closer to U.S. model
By contrast, Britain bases its business culture on an American model that keeps government interference at a minimum in the belief that freedom promotes growth and opportunity. New EU members in Eastern Europe also want flexible work rules to help them become as rich as more established EU states.

Some European countries use the labor loophole mainly for their health and emergency services. But in Britain it is widely used across the private and public sector.

Advocates in the EU parliament of the proposed labor reform said Wednesday’s vote was aimed at restoring public confidence in European social values.

“EU citizens are asking what the EU can do for them, and this is one of the things,” said Alejandro Cercas, the Spanish Socialist member of the European parliament who drafted the labor legislation. “Citizens want a social Europe.”

Lawmakers voted for the opt-out to be phased out over three years following the adoption of a new EU Working Time Directive, expected in 2007. Socialist, Labour and Green deputies were in favor of scrapping it, while the European People’s Party and some independent lawmakers voted against it by 378 votes to 262. There were 15 abstentions.

Next step in June
EU employment ministers are set to discuss the issue again at a meeting in Luxembourg in June. Theoretically, EU member states could vote on the measure under complicated rules that weight each country according to its size. But the EU has usually ratified or rejected legislation brought forward by the European Parliament through negotiations aimed at producing a broad consensus.

In addition to Britain, eight countries, including EU heavyweight Germany, are in favor of retaining the opt-out, said Stephen Hughes, a British Labour Party member of the European parliament. Another bloc, led by Sweden, France, Greece, Belgium and Hungary is against it.

Under the new rules, managers, CEOs and employees elected by the board of their company would still be able to apply for the opt-out under strict conditions. However, other workers — including those in health and emergency services — would have to stick to a 48-hour week.

Liam Fox, the British Conservative Party’s co-chairman, called on the government to “use all their diplomatic efforts to ensure that Britain is not saddled with yet more regulation that will cost British jobs.”