Council agrees to extend working time Directive to excluded sectors

At their Council meeting on 25 May 1999, EU Labour and Social Affairs Ministers reached agreement on their common position on a draft Directive amending the 1993 working time Directive with the aim of ending the exclusion of the majority of sectors previously outside the scope of this legislation. Specific sectoral measures on the working time of seafarers, based on a framework agreement reached by the sector's social partners in September 1998, were also approved. No progress was made on the European Company Statute, but the social partners' framework agreement on the rights of workers on fixed-term contracts was widely welcomed.

A meeting of the Labour and Social Affairs Council of Ministers was held under the German Presidency on 25 May 1999, and significant progress was made on the extension of the 1993 working time Directive to excluded sectors.

Working time

The EU Directive on certain aspects of the organisation of working time (93/104/EC), adopted in 1993, aims to protect workers against the harmful effects of long working hours on their health and safety. Its provisions include:

  • a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours per 24-hour period;
  • a rest break where the working day is longer than six hours;
  • a minimum uninterrupted rest period of one day a week (consecutive with an 11-hour daily rest period);
  • a maximum working week of 48 hours on average (over a reference period), including overtime;
  • four weeks' annual paid holiday; and
  • a stipulation that night workers must not work more than eight hours in 24 on average.

Owing to a number of operational difficulties, the road, rail, sea, air and inland waterways transport sectors, as well as sea fishing, other work at sea and doctors in training, were excluded from the provisions of the Directive. Following consultations (EU9707138N), In November 1998, the European Commission adopted a package of proposals for Council Directives to cover workers in the excluded sectors (EU9901144F)

At their meeting in May 1999, Labour and Social Affairs Ministers successfully worked out a unanimous political agreement on a substantial part of the proposals presented by the Commission. They agreed: a common position on the proposal for a "horizontal" Directive amending the 1993 Directive to cover excluded sectors and activities excluded from that Directive; a common position on the proposal for a Directive concerning enforcement of seafarers' hours of work on board ships using Community ports; and a draft Directive concerning the agreement on the organisation of seafarers working time concluded by the European Community Shipowners' Association (ECSA) and the Federation of Transport Workers' Unions in the European Union (FST) in September 1998 (following on from an earlier draft accord - EU9802182F)

The formal adoption of the Council's common position on the "horizontal" Directive and on the Directive on the enforcement of seafarers' working hours on board ships using Community ports was to take place at a forthcoming Council session, possibly before the end of June. Both common positions will then be transmitted to the European Parliament for discussion, in accordance with the co-decision procedure. The Directive concerning the ECSA-FST agreement on seafarers' working hours also stood to be adopted without further debate in June.

The "horizontal" Directive extends all the important provisions (regarding working hours and annual leave and health assessments) of the existing Directive to non-mobile workers in the transport sector and in sea fishing. However, the new draft takes into account the special circumstances pertaining to mobile workers in the excluded sectors, and recognises the specific nature of activities at sea - accepting that the "reference period" for averaging hours cannot simply be a 48-hour week - and of doctors in training. The specific constraints of the fishing industry led the Council to agree on sector-specific provisions inspired by the social partners' agreement on seafarers, varying in areas such as annual leave. The issue of the working hours of doctors in training caused most contention and was finally settled by providing a nine-year transition period (from the end of the Directive's implementation period) before the 48-hour limit would apply. The transition period was deemed necessary by a number of Member States in order to train doctors in sufficient numbers to allow for the implementation of the Directive.

In line with the provisions of the new Articles 136-139 of the Amsterdam Treaty, which implement the procedure for European-level social partner agreements set out in the Maastricht social policy Agreement, the ECSA-FST agreement on the working time of seafarers is being given legislative backing without amendment. The agreement provides for either a maximum number of working hours (14 hours in any 24-hour period and 72 hours in any seven-day period) or a minimum rest period regime (10 hours in any 24-hour period and 77 hours in a seven-day period). The draft Directive on the enforcement of seafarers' hours of work on board ships using Community ports is aimed at providing a "level playing field" in terms of security and competition.

A further draft Directive, on working time for mobile workers performing road transport activities and for self-employed drivers, was due to be considered by Transport Ministers at their meeting in June

No progress on European Company Statute

Once again, the Labour and Social Affairs Council discussed the draft provisions on employee involvement in the proposed European Company Statute (EU9903160N). A global compromise presented by the Presidency was approved by all delegations apart from that of Spain. Unanimity is required for the adoption of both the Directive on employee participation and the draft Regulation on the Statute, and all delegations unsuccessfully urged Spain to reconsider, as "after 30 years, the margin of compromise is virtually exhausted and ... a decision must now be reached." The Presidency regretted that no progress could be made on this issue, thus sending out a "negative signal" to European citizens in the run-up to the June European Parliament election. The Presidency would now halt work on this dossier and bring the situation to the attention of June's European Council in Cologne.

Other issues

At the May meeting, the Labour and Social Affairs Ministers also:

  • reached agreement on a resolution on equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The resolution welcomes existing efforts at Member State level in this area and argues that the Member States' National Action Plans for employment, drawn up in response to the EU Employment Guidelines (EU9810130F) provide an excellent platform to strengthen such measures. The aim of greater equality of opportunity for disabled people is also to be enshrined in the future possibilities for the European Social Fund to support Community initiatives in this area. The Council also welcomed the initiative of the social partners at European level to identify good practice in this field and encouraged social partners at all levels to play an increasing role in creating better employment opportunities for disabled people. The Community institutions are also encouraged to develop more comprehensive policies and opportunities in this area.
  • warmly welcomed the draft Directive aimed at implementing the EU-level social partners' March 1999 framework agreement on fixed-term contracts (EU9903162N). Formal adoption of the proposal, which was presented by the Commission on 1 May 1999 (EU9905170F), could not take place before the expiry of a newly introduced six-week period during which national parliaments can examine proposed Community legislation. This is the first time that this provision, introduced by the "Protocol on the role of national parliaments in the European Union" annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam, had been applied,
  • took note of the state of play regarding discussion of the 1993 proposal for a Directive on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risks arising from physical agents, which had run into problems soon after submission because some Member States found it too wide-ranging. The German Presidency produced a revised text in January 1999, focusing mainly on a single physical agent - vibration - with the idea that separate proposals should be drawn up for each agent. A majority of delegations expressed broad support for this approach and work will continue at expert level;
  • heard from the Presidency about the progress of the draft Directive on minimum requirements for improving the safety and health protection of workers potentially at risk from explosive atmospheres. The Council adopted its common position in December 1998 (EU9812142N), with the European Parliament giving its second reading in May 1999, after the Amsterdam Treaty came into force. The draft has thus become the first proposal in the social field to have been switched to the co-decision procedure following the May Treaty changes (EU9905175N). This means that conciliation will be necessary if the Council is not able to accept all of the Parliament's eight suggested amendments; and
  • in preparation for a joint session with the Economic and Financial Affairs Council of Ministers the same day, reviewed the Presidency's latest draft of the proposed "European employment pact" (EU9905174N).

Commentary

The agreement reached at the Labour and Social Affairs Council should effectively end the anomalous exclusion of a number of sectors from the 1993 working time Directive. The Commission had hoped that sector-specific accords could be reached through social dialogue, but this proved impossible in most sectors, with the exception of maritime transport. The agreement in this industry will become the first European-level sectoral agreement to be implemented under the former Maastricht social policy Agreement (now integrated in the Amsterdam Treaty). The Directive for mobile workers in road transport which is being discussed in the Transport Council was drawn up following the failure of the sectoral social partners to reach an agreement (EU9809127F). The long transition period agreed for the implementation of the provisions of the Directive for doctors in training attracted much criticism from trade unions representing junior doctors, who argued that working hours of over 60 hours per week, as are common in many hospitals in a number of Member States, were putting patients' lives in jeopardy.

Progress on the European Company Statute again proved impossible and is now unlikely in the foreseeable future unless the Spanish delegation withdraws its objections. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research and Consulting)

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