Times Editorial on Working Time Directive - 16/5/2005

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Opt-out clause compromise is best solution

With a high degree of justification, the European Parliament's first vote to scrap the highly contentious opt-out clause in the EU Commission's working time directive has stirred a great deal of emotion in the countries where the move would hit most if it were to be enforced. Even so, it is well to keep in mind first the reasons that had led to the drafting of the directive so that the issue is considered in its proper perspective.

The directive officially lays down provisions for a maximum 48-hour working week (including overtime), rest periods and breaks and a minimum of four weeks paid leave per year, to protect workers from adverse health and safety risks. It applies to all sectors of activity, both public and private. A number of areas, such as air, rail, road, sea and other work at sea and doctors in training, which were exempt from the 1993 directive were brought within its scope in an amendment agreed in 2000.

According to the drafters of the directive, the link between long working hours and health and safety is well-established. Research has shown that work-related fatigue increases with the number of hours worked. Fatigue and loss of concentration cannot be avoided after a certain period of time and the risk of industrial accidents increases during the final hours of work.

One article of the 1993 directive allows member states not to apply the maximum working week of 48 hours if a number of conditions are complied with. But the European Parliament's employment committee argues that the opt-out clause "contradicts all the evidence that indicates that working time without limits poses a serious risk to workers' health and safety, as well as to the reconciliation of family and professional life".

Malta is not the only country that is against the move for the scrapping of the opt-out clause and the reasons for this are not hard to understand. The UK had negotiated an opt-out system and Tony Blair, fresh from a victory at the polls, albeit with a reduced majority, lost no time on Thursday in reaffirming his government's intention to retain the opt-out. Besides the UK, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Latvia are against the move too.

It is difficult arguing against the merits of the directive and, also, of the motivation for the opt-out clause. While it is surely praiseworthy to protect the workers' health, the countries opposing the scrapping of the opt-out clause have valid reasons for wanting to keep flexibility in working hours.

As usually happens whenever exemptions are given to any directive or procedure, abuses do occur. In fact, it has been found, for example, that in the UK there are more workers today putting in over 48 hours per week than there were before the directive came into force in 1993. What prompted the move towards scrapping the opt-out was in fact its widespread use in member states.

In Malta, where, for various reasons, including the fact that the standard of living is much lower than that of a number of European Union countries, resort to overtime is rampant, the move is also likely to generate a great deal of opposition.

The situation as it stands now is that the European Commission, which is against the European Parliament's bid to scrap the opt-out, is trying to work out a compromise.

Since there are a number of countries that are likely to join the UK in the opposition against the scrapping of the opt-out, a compromise would appear to be the best solution.

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