Working Time Directive - Government position - 30/10/2004

Malta supports opt out in EU working time directive
Cynthia Busuttil

The introduction of the European working time directive within the local health sector would "definitely" lead to a need for more doctors, according to the head of the directorate for the EU and international affairs within the Health Ministry, Natasha Azzopardi Muscat.

Dr Azzopardi Muscat said the directorate has estimated that a 100 per cent increase at the senior registrar grade - a doctor who has the full qualifications in a specialisation - and a 30 per cent increase at the senior house officer grade - a doctor who has started the process of specialisation - would be needed.

The directive, which will come into force in the medical sector in 2007, will lead to doctors working an average 48-hour week. Dr Azzopardi Muscat said that in principle the Health Ministry supported a 48-hour working week. One of the aims of the directive is to enable doctors to do their job better because they get more rest.

The European Commission is proposing the tightening of regulations surrounding the possibility of opting out of the 48-hour week.

The Medical Association of Malta has reservations about the removal of the opt-out, which the Permanent Working Group of European Junior Doctors (PWG), of which the association is a member, favours.

Dr Azzopardi Muscat said the Maltese authorities supported the retention of the opt-out as it is in the current working time directive.

"Malta also believes that the individual should always retain the right to opt out and this should not be a condition which is subject to collective agreements," she said.

Dr Azzopardi Muscat said the authorities also supported measures aimed at reducing concerns regarding any potential for abuse in the use of the opt-out clause, like the retention of documentation of the number of hours actually worked by the employee.

In an interview, PWG president Nina Tiainen stressed the importance of a doctor's salary being adequate so that they were not forced to work more than 48 hours. However, Dr Azzopardi Muscat said this did not seem to be relevant to Malta at this time.

A bone of contention for MAM is the definition of work included in the proposed revision of the directive, which is suggesting that the inactive part of on-call work should not be counted as working time. Dr Azzopardi Muscat said the authorities in Malta supported the European Commission's proposal regarding the introduction of separate definitions for "on-call time" and "inactive part of on-call time", leaving the implementation up to the jurisdiction of each member state.

"This would allow flexibility to those countries that have encountered problems with staying within the 48-hour limit.

"In Malta, on-call time at work has been considered as working time for a number of years and is thus in compliance with the interpretation given by the Court of Justice," she said.

Dr Azzopardi Muscat said on-call time was fully remunerated. However, she emphasised that the implementation of such definitions would probably be left up to the individual countries and Malta did not feel the need to introduce such measures at present.

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