Council fails to agree on temporary agency work Directive

At the EU employment and social policy Council meeting held on 2-3 June 2003, ministers failed to reach agreement on a common position on the draft Directive on temporary agency workers. However, political agreement was reached on the Regulation on a statute for a European Cooperative Society and the accompanying Directive on worker involvement.

A meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council was held in Luxembourg on 2-3 June 2003 under the Greek Presidency. Ministers debated a range of employment and social policy issues, with varying degrees of success.

Temporary agency workers

Ministers held what they termed a 'useful' discussion on the proposal for a Directive on working conditions for temporary (agency) workers. This is a complex dossier and has been the subject of much discussion and differing views (EU0303203F) since the proposal was launched by the European Commission in March 2002 (EU0204205F). It had been hoped that political agreement on a common position on the text might be reached at the June Council. However, after a debate, it was acknowledged that 'fundamental differences remained' and that it was therefore not possible to reach political agreement at this stage.

As the proposal currently stands, it sets out the general principle of equal treatment, under which temporary agency workers should receive the same basic working conditions as if they had been directly employed by the user company to carry out the same job. It is envisaged that an exemption in terms of pay could apply to temporary agency workers on assignments of up to six weeks.

During the debate at the June meeting, a majority of delegations stated that they would be willing to accept a transitional period of five years during which an exemption to the principle of equal treatment could be granted 'in view of the specific conditions of Member States’ labour markets'. However, four delegations were of the view of this exemption should be permanent. As a compromise, the Presidency suggested that the exemption should apply pending a future decision by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament (EP). However, the majority of delegations did not accept this and the other four delegations stated that they would accept this only if the 'qualifying period', during which time an exemption may be made, was six months.

Nevertheless, work on this dossier will continue, focusing on the following three areas:

  • how to address the need for a specific derogation to help unemployed people gain access to the labour market;
  • the review and possible removal of restrictions to temporary agency work; and
  • the nature of the exemption from the principle of equal treatment and the length of the qualifying period.

European Cooperative Society

The Council did, however, reach political agreement on the Regulation on a Statute for a European Cooperative Society and the accompanying Directive on the involvement of employees (EU0306201N). This followed the issuing of the EP’s opinion on the text in May 2003. Although the EP was consulted on this issue in 1992, the Council decided to reconsult the EP as substantial amendments had been made to these texts since that time.

The aim of these instruments is to allow the creation of a new legal entity for the organisation of economic operations in two or more Member States in the form of a cooperative society, similar to the recently adopted European Company Statute for private limited companies (EU0206202F). As with the European Company, the European Cooperative Society would be covered by specific provisions (set out in the Directive) on employee information, consultation and participation.

The Regulation and Directive should now be formally adopted at a future Council once they have been subjected to legal and linguistic checking.

Employment package

The Council also debated the draft 2003 'employment package', drawn up by the European Commission within the context of the European employment strategy (EU0210206F). It agreed on a general approach, pending an opinion from the EP, on a Decision on the 2003 guidelines for Member States’ employment policies - welcoming the fact that they are now more streamlined, simplified and concrete - and reached political agreement on a Recommendation on the implementation of Member States’ employment policies, which provides individual guidance to Member States on how to implement the employment guidelines

Other issues

The Council reached political agreement on a proposal for a Decision setting up an advisory committee on safety, hygiene and health protection at work, which will merge the current advisory committee in this area and the safety and health committee for the mining and other extractive industries. The aim of the new committee is to assist the Commission in the preparation and implementation of activities in the fields of safety and health at work and to facilitate cooperation between national administrations, trade unions and employers’ organisations. This Decision is expected to enter into force on 1 January 2004.

The Council also agreed on a general approach, pending a first reading from the EP, on a part (Title III: special provisions concerning various categories of benefit) of a proposal for a Regulation on the coordination of social security systems in the EU (EU0212205F).

Ministers also adopted two Resolutions. The first concerns 'building social and human capital in the knowledge society: learning, work, social cohesion and gender' and the second concerns the promotion of employment and social integration of people with disabilities.

Finally, ministers endorsed the the Social Protection Committee's work programme of special studies on pension issues. This follows on from a request made by the spring 2003 European Council summit (EU0304205F) for the Council and the Commission to maintain the momentum for cooperation in the area of pensions by delivering special studies focusing on common challenges at EU level for pension systems.

Commentary

The most high-profile issue discussed at the June Council was the proposal for a Directive regulating working conditions for temporary agency workers. It had been hoped that consensus could be achieved at this meeting, but it is clear that significant differences remain between Member States on this issue, not least owing to the fact that the incidence and regulation of temporary agency work varies considerably between Member States. It is obvious that there is still a long way to go before final adoption of this proposal, given that, even if ministers do manage to agree a common position soon, the text must then be forwarded to the EP for a second reading after which, under the co-decision procedure, if the Commission and the Council cannot accept all the EP's amendments, a conciliation committee must be convened to try to reach a compromise text. (Andrea Broughton, IRS).

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