MEPs have agreed to scrap member state opt-outs
from the EU rule on limiting a working week to an average of 48 hours, and
supported the idea that hours spent on-call should be regarded as working
time.

The European Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee approved
a compromise
version of a report by Alejandro Cercas, Spanish Socialist MEP, on Wednesday
20 April. The parliamentary draft agreement differs from the original Commission's
proposal in several ways and may prove difficult to garner enough support
from member states. All MEPs are set to vote on a review of the EU's Working
Time
Directive in mid-May.

The amendments to the Directive were inspired by the
EU Court's ruling which stated that time spent on call, even though not
actively working – as happens in the case of doctors or firefighters – should
also be considered as proper "working time". The decision was not
well received across the member states, as it could cause huge financial costs
and shortages of employees in some sectors, and most countries reacted by referring
to an opt-out clause on the 48-hour working week. However, in their decision
on Wednesday parliamentarians supported the definition of on-call time as interpreted
by the court, while suggesting that hours of "inactive" working time
could be calculated differently from normal active working hours.

While the
Commission proposed that it should remain possible for companies to set
longer working hours when an agreement was made collectively, MEPs decided
that this
provision should be scrapped within 36 months after the new rules come
into force.

Such a requirement, however, is not likely to be approved by some
member
states that are seeking to make the EU more business friendly. Britain
remains the strongest critic to any changes of its opt-out from the working
time limit,
and also rejects the idea of allowing the opt-out only through collective
agreements. The battle over working time rules will be regarded as a key
test of 'social
Europe'.

While the trade unions are expected to back the Parliament's
position, the business representatives have voiced their concern.

"Imposing greater
inflexibility on working time rules will threaten the survival of many small
firms and ultimately cost jobs across the EU," said Hans-Werner Müller,
Secretary General of UEAPME, the European small and medium business organisation.

He
called on the Parliament to reverse the committee's decision when
they vote on the Directive in May.

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