Cross-sector social partners fail to agree on working time

Employers and employees have failed to agree on reforms to the EU Working Time Directive after more than a year of discussions. Despite having earlier asked for a deadline extension, the EU-level cross-sector social partners announced in mid-December that talks were being abandoned. The employers’ group has said it made solid proposals to make compromise possible on contentious issues. Union representatives, however, say that the ‘final offer’ was not sufficiently balanced.


Employers and trade unions have been locked in negotiations for more than a year over revision of the EU Working Time Directive (2003/88/EC). The EU-level cross-sector social partners representing the employers were BusinessEurope, the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) and the European Centre of Employers and Enterprises Providing Public Services (CEEP). Trade unions were represented by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), and negotiations began on 14 November 2011 (EU1111051I).

The talks were focused on issues such as the opt-out from the maximum weekly working time limit of 48 hours set by the directive, on-call working, and the interpretation of European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgments concerning working time.

Hopes for an agreement

In August 2012, the European Commission announced that it had agreed to a joint proposal from the social partners to extend the negotiating period to 31 December 2012 in order to give the social partners more time for discussions (EU1208011I). At the time, it seemed there was a good chance of the social partners reaching agreement on the issues.

However, in mid-December it was announced that the social partners had decided to abandon the talks.

Unions opt out of negotiations

The ETUC Executive Committee met on 5 and 6 December 2012 to discuss an interim report on the progress of the talks, and decided it was not possible to continue the negotiations. A statement on the ETUC’s website said:

The Committee regretted to note that the ‘final offer’ from the employers was not sufficiently balanced, and consequently did not make it possible to continue the negotiations as such.

The ETUC emphasised its belief that there was an ‘obvious link’ between long and irregular working hours and health problems related to work. It went on to say that ‘the protection of the health and safety of workers must therefore remain the prime objective of any revision of the directive’.

Employers state their case

For the employers, a joint BusinessEurope, CEEP and UEAPME statement (190Kb PDF) was issued on 14 December 2012. They said they regretted the fact that the ETUC did not feel able to continue negotiations on the revision of the directive. The statement went on to say that employers had made:

...substantial and concrete proposals to solve the crucial issue of on-call time and its link in some countries with the use of the opt-out, which allows Member States to derogate from the 48-hour weekly working time limit.

The employers felt these proposals were to the benefit of both employers and employees.

The employers said the distinctive nature of on-call working should be defined in the directive in order to ensure legal certainty of its treatment, as distinct from that of working time. They stressed that they remained ready to examine any further suggestions from the ETUC, particularly as there has been no counterproposal from the ETUC to the employers’ most recent proposal.

The employers went on to say that if negotiations were not able to progress the issue, it would be up to the Commission to propose a solution.

Each employer organisation also issued a separate comment. Markus Beyrer, Director General of BusinessEurope, said:

Private sector companies are clearly impacted by the ECJ rulings on on-call time. That is why from the start of the negotiations we have been committed to finding a cross-sectoral solution on on-call time. Our commitment remains strong… Also important is to maintain the opt-out as a permanent provision of the directive.

CEEP General Secretary Valeria Ronzitti said:

We urge ETUC to answer to the latest employers’ proposal around the negotiating table. Negotiations are based on the principle that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ and a non-answer is the worst possible signal in this context. A negotiated solution of the issue of on-call time and its link with the spreading of the opt-out is the highest priority for public services employers, primarily in the interest of their employees.

Andrea Benassi, Secretary General of UEAPME, said:

Flexible and legally ensured working time arrangements are absolutely crucial for European crafts and SMEs. That is why we put a lot of hope in the negotiations to revise the working time directive. Our objective was to find workable solutions to the benefit of employers and workers… Furthermore, UEAPME would have highly appreciated a 12-month reference period to calculate average working time. Not reaching an agreement among EU social partners on such a core issue – despite our best efforts – would be very regrettable. We are still open to realistic solutions, despite the very tight deadline ahead of us.


Although the negotiations appear to have stalled at present, there is perhaps a glimmer of hope, in that the employer side seems keen to hold open the door to further negotiations between the social partner delegations. However, if ETUC sticks with its decision not to respond to the employers’ latest proposal, there will be no movement. It will then be up to the Commission to issue a legislative proposal to amend the directive, based on its previous consultation and impact assessment work.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies

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