Social Affairs Council agrees health and safety Directives

Meeting in December 1998, EU Labour and Social Affairs Ministers reached agreement on proposed Directives on the protection of workers from exposure to carcinogens in the workplace and on protection from explosive atmospheres. Worker involvement in the European Company Statute and new education and training initiatives were also discussed. The social affairs Commissioner, Pádraig Flynn, introduced new legislative proposals on national worker information and consultation and on the extension of the working time Directive to excluded sectors.

The last meeting of the Council of Labour and Social Affairs Ministers under the Austrian Presidency took place on 2 December 1998. The meeting lead to political agreement on a number of key issues, particularly relating to worker health and safety.

Ministers reached a political agreement on the proposed Directive amending for the second time the Directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens at work(90/394/EEC), enabling formal adoption at a forthcoming Council meeting The proposal to amend the Directive had first been tabled by the European Commission on 18 March 1998. The agreement includes the extension of the scope of the Directive to include vinyl chloride monomer (currently covered by another Directive, which will be repealed), which in effect represents a move towards the consolidation in a single text of the existing Directives on carcinogens in the workplace.

Political agreement was also reached on a draft Directive providing improved protection from explosive atmospheres, enabling formal adoption without debate at a forthcoming Council meeting. This Directive, originally proposed in September 1995 and amended in April 1997, harmonises the safety characteristics of material to be used in explosive atmospheres, as well as completing Directive 94/9/EEC, which approximates national legislation on appliances and systems for protection for use in explosive atmospheres.

The Presidency presented a draft compromise text on the issue of employee involvement within the European Company (SE) (EU9805108N). At the behest of the Presidency, the Council discussed the key issue related to the possible introduction of board-level employee participation in a European Company. A large majority of delegations reportedly supported the Presidency's proposal on this matter and it was felt that a solution to this question could have created a momentum leading to an agreement also on the other outstanding questions. However, the reservations expressed by one delegation could not be overcome without threatening the overall balance of the compromise, which was therefore not discussed further. While political agreement did not prove within reach at this session, the Presidency stressed that "a solution had never been so close". The future German Council President underlined his intention to continue exploring ways of finding an agreement.

The Council also reached a political agreement on a Decision to implement a Commission initiative which aims to promote "European pathways in work-linked training", including apprenticeships. The idea builds on previous schemes that promote mobility in training, such as Erasmus which has enabled over 1.2 million students to undertake studies in another Member State. The new scheme is due to begin on 1 January 2000 and was launched by Edith Cresson, the member of the Commission responsible for education and training.

The initiative aims to encourage the mobility of people of whatever age, in vocational training, and to link schools and/or businesses' training centres throughout the EU. This is based on the recognition of the complementarity of these institutions in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. In addition, the Decision defines the content and general quality principles, as well as ensuring greater transparency and visibility to these European pathways. This initiative is set within a wider policy framework aiming at the achievement of the internal market, as well as furthering a knowledge-based Europe.

In the same area, the Council extended to students the application of two regulations guaranteeing the cover of the most important aspects of the social security system, including sickness insurance, when they move between Member States.

Ministers took note of a "mid-term report", issued by the Commission in September, on the Community Programme on safety, hygiene and health at work (1996-2000). In the report, the Commission re-examines its priorities from now until 2000 in the light of the political agreements in the recent Amsterdam and Luxembourg European Councils and of changes in the world of work.

The Presidency presented a follow up report at EU level to the fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. The report recognises the disparity in women's representation in national parliaments. The Austrian Minister for Labour, Health and Social Affairs, Eleonora Hostasch, called for a concerted effort to remedy the situation, as the average representation of women in national parliaments is 17.5%.

The European Commission member responsible for social affairs, Pádraig Flynn, presented the proposals which he pledged to push during the German EU Presidency of the first half of 1999. These include: the extension of the 1993 Council Directive on certain aspects of the organisation of working time (93/104/EC), to sectors previously excluded; the proposal for a Directive on the information and consultation of workers at national level (EU9812135F); and a Communication on the organisation of working hours.

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