Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Wednesday, 1 April 2009 16:20 UK

EU in tough talks on working week

By Laurence Peter
BBC News

Medics with patient (file pic)
There has been heated debate about UK junior doctors' long hours

The European Parliament and EU governments are starting a new round of talks aimed at resolving a dispute over the EU's Working Time Directive.

The UK and 14 other EU member states have an opt-out from the directive, objecting to the 48-hour limit it sets on the working week.

But in December members of the European Parliament voted to scrap the opt-out.

MEPs also say on-call time counts as working time. A decision on that would affect key sectors such as healthcare.

The current "conciliation" is the final stage in the legislative debate. Both sides have until May to thrash out a deal, and if none is reached the European Commission will have to present new legislative proposals.

The first conciliation round on 17 March failed to produce an agreement.

The commission, which proposed changes to the directive in 2004, is acting as referee in the negotiations, a source at the parliament told BBC News.

On-call time disputed

The talks are complicated by the fact that the European Court of Justice ruled in two cases - called SIMAP and Jaeger - that doctors' on-call periods taken as a whole count as working time.

The EU governments and the commission have sought to distinguish between "active" and "inactive" on-call time, to give employers some flexibility.

"Active" on-call time means the worker being at the workplace, while "inactive" means on-call, but not required to be at work. "Inactive" would not count as working time unless decided otherwise by national law or a workplace agreement.

But the parliament argues that any period of on-call time is to count as working time.

The conciliation involves a 27-strong delegation from the parliament, representing various countries and political groups, and a similar delegation from the 27 member states' governments.

Long-hours culture

An overwhelming majority of Labour MEPs backed the decision to scrap the UK's opt-out - defying the UK government position.

The UK government's own impact assessment says the directive has already cost UK businesses £1.9bn annually. According to the Open Europe think-tank, the cost to the UK is as much as £3.9bn annually.

Supporters of the opt-out argue that it would also enable thousands of part-time or retained firefighters to keep their jobs.

But UK unions support the MEPs' stand, insisting Britain's culture of long hours must be curbed.

Their concerns were echoed by Labour MEP Stephen Hughes, who said "we have one of the longest sets of working time, just behind Bulgaria and Romania, and we are languishing at the bottom of the table of productivity".

Mr Hughes is in the parliament's negotiating team. But one of his fellow negotiators, Lib Dem MEP Liz Lynne, argues that the opt-out "should be retained so long as it is truly voluntary".

"Workers should be allowed to earn overtime if they wish to," she said, warning that scrapping the opt-out could push people into illegal and potentially hazardous work.

The directive was first adopted at EU-level in 1993, though the UK did not implement it until 1998.

The UK opt-out concerns the 48-hour week. While 14 other countries also have that opt-out, most of them apply it only to certain sectors and only five countries apply it generally like the UK.

A parliament source, who asked not to be identified, said that whatever the outcome, the directive would have to be updated to take account of the European Court rulings.

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