Temporary work, working time and equality discussed at Council

At an EU social policy and employment Council meeting held on 4 October 2004, ministers debated a number of important measures including draft Directives on equal treatment for women and men (outside the workplace), temporary agency workers and the organisation of working time.

On 4 October 2004, EU employment and social affairs ministers met in Luxembourg, within the framework of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council, chaired by the Dutch social affairs minister, Aart Jan de Geus (the Netherlands currently holds the Council Presidency). The ministers discussed a variety of issues and reached the following key decisions in the employment field:

  • political agreement on the draft Directive implementing equal treatment between women and men outside the workplace. This is of interest in the social field as it aims to ensure equal treatment in access to and supply of goods and services and has implications for private pension provision;
  • adoption of a Decision maintaining the 2003 employment guidelines to the Member States; and
  • adoption of a Decision re-establishing the Social Protection Committee.

Equal treatment between women and men

The Council reached political agreement on the draft Directive implementing equal treatment between women and men outside the workplace, aimed at extending the principle of equal treatment beyond the employment arena to other areas of everyday life (EU0312201N). It aims to ensure equal treatment in access to and supply of goods and services.

The proposal includes a provision that equal treatment is the guiding principle to be applied by insurance and financial service providers, such as private pension providers, though a number of exceptions are provided for under specific conditions. For example, Member States may permit proportionate differences in individuals’ premiums and benefits where the use of sex is a determining factor in the assessment of risk. However, any different treatment has to be based on relevant and accurate actuarial and statistical data that has to be made public and regularly updated. Exceptions to the principle of equal treatment are subject to review by the Member States and the European Commission. The text provides for a two-year transitional period for applying these provisions, in view of the structure of the insurance market in certain Member States.

The draft Directive is limited to goods and services available to the public and offered outside the area of private and family life. It does not apply to the content of the media or advertising, or to public or private education. It provides for a transposition period of three years, and establishes only minimum requirements so that Member States can maintain higher or wider levels of protection.

The European Parliament delivered its opinion on the proposal on 30 March 2004, so the draft Directive will now be definitively adopted after finalisation of the text in all Community languages. The draft Directive is subject to the consultation procedure, under Article 13 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC), which requires unanimous agreement in the Council of Ministers, but does not require co-decision with the European Parliament.

Organisation of working time

The Council held a first exchange of views on the European Commission's September 2004 proposal for a Directive amending the EU Directive concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time (originally adopted in 1993 and now consolidated in Directive 2003/88/EC) (EU0410205F). The main amendments that would be introduced by the draft Directive concern:

  • the length of the reference period for the calculation of maximum weekly working time. The Directive does not set an absolute limit on weekly working time, but an average (of 48 hours a week) to be calculated over a reference period;
  • the definition of working time, introducing definitions of 'on call time' and 'inactive part of on-call time'; and
  • the conditions for the application of the 'opt-out' clause regarding the Directive's maximum weekly working time.

The Presidency’s objective is to reach political agreement on a draft Directive at the employment and social affairs Council meeting in December 2004.

Temporary agency workers

The Council held a policy debate on the draft Directive on working conditions for temporary (agency) workers. This proposal was first issued by the European Commission in March 2002 (EU0204205F) but the Council has yet to agree a common position (EU0306206F). The discussion in October focused mainly on the outstanding issue of equal pay and conditions for temporary agency workers and it was recognised that further efforts would be required to enable the Council to reach an acceptable compromise. The Presidency undertook to 'pursue its reflections'. The draft Directive aims at striking a balance between flexibility and job security and completes a package of measures aimed at regulating conditions for 'atypical' workers. Temporary agency work is seen as a key factor if the EU is to meet the employment targets set at the Lisbon European Council in March 2000 (EU0004241F).

Other issues

EU agencies

Agreement was reached (while awaiting the European Parliament's opinion) on two draft Regulations, aimed at increasing the efficiency of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (Bilbao), and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Dublin). This is in particular in the context of the enlarged EU.

Equality and non-discrimination

The Council was briefed on a Commission green paper on equality and non-discrimination in an enlarged EU.

Conferences

The Council was briefed on the conclusions from a conference on the gender perspective of diversity and participation, held in Rotterdam in July 2004. Ministers were invited to an international conference on the incorporation of the results of the EU EQUAL initiative into national policies, to be held in Warsaw in November 2004.

Social Protection Committee

A Decision (EU0312206F) was adopted to re-establish the Social Protection Committee (first set up in 2000 - EU0006256F) on a new legal basis.

Employment policies

A Decision was adopted maintaining the 2003 guidelines for Member States’ employment policies (EU0308205F) that were approved in July 2003.

Commentary

The October 2004 meeting of the employment and social affairs Council made notable progress with several legislative instruments. It achieved political agreement on the Directive aimed at ensuring equal access to goods and services, which will be definitively adopted as soon as it has been translated into all the Community languages. Ministers also held a first discussion of the Commission’s controversial proposal to amend the working time Directive. Given the difficult nature of its content, the Dutch Presidency’s aim of reaching political agreement in Council by December 2004 may seem a little optimistic.

Finally, this Council was notable for its debate, for the first time since June 2003, of the proposal for a Directive regulating working conditions for temporary agency workers. However, ministers appeared merely to have agreed that more work needs to be done on this dossier. Nevertheless, the next few months might see some movement , given the Dutch Presidency’s commitment to pursue this issue. (Beatrice Harper, IRS)

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