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EU in showdown over working time
Workers in the EU put in an average of 40 hours per week
EU employment ministers are holding crunch talks on an EU working hours law that may weaken a UK opt-out from the 48-hour maximum working week.
Amendments tabled by the Finnish government would cut the absolute maximum working week - for people using the opt-out - from 78 hours to 60.
They would also schedule a review of the opt-out, with a view to its "gradual ending" at a later date.
States wanting to end the opt-out right have never yet had a majority.
European Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla began the meeting by threatening to withdraw the amended bill if there was no agreement - and to start prosecuting countries in breach of the original directive.
Q&A: Working time directive
It is reported that only two of the 25 member states are currently fully complying with the directive.
The UK, as the country which has fought hardest against the amended directive, would be in the front line for legal action.
The European working time directive guarantees workers at least four weeks' paid annual leave, a minimum period of 11 hours' rest every 24 hours, at least one day's rest per week, and a rest break if the working day is longer than six hours.
It also says night workers should work a maximum of eight hours, on average, in every 24, and entitles them to health assessments.
The UK has fought moves to end the opt-out, on the grounds that labour market flexibility promotes economic growth and lowers unemployment.
Other countries, including France and Spain, argue that the opt-out is bad for workers' health, and gives the UK a competitive advantage.
However, most countries face difficulties complying with a recent European court ruling, which says that time spent at work on call counts as working time, even when the worker is asleep.
The amended law, both in the original form proposed by the European Commission and the form now proposed by Finland, the current holder of the EU presidency, states clearly that inactive time on call does not count as working time.
There have been reports that the UK may be prepared to accept the Finnish proposal if the absolute maximum working week is set at 65 or 70 hours, and if there are legal safeguards to prevent courts overturning the opt-out.
Surrendering the opt-out would be equivalent to abandoning British businesses but so would allowing it to be watered down with tons more red tape
Alan Tyrrell, Federation of Small Businesses
Some professions, such as company executives and emergency workers, would still be exempt.
Under the Finnish proposal, a workers' 48-hour working week could be averaged out over a reference period of up to 12 months, the precise period being set by national governments.
This would enable most employers operating in markets where there are seasonal peaks to avoid violations.
The maximum working week of 60 hours, for those making use of the opt-out, would be averaged over three months.
Workers would have to agree to opt out, and would be able to withdraw their agreement at any point in the next three months without suffering any penalty.
The UK Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says the Finnish proposal would impose a huge bureaucratic burden on companies, which would be forced to submit exhaustive records of hours worked by staff.
"Surrendering the opt-out would be equivalent to abandoning British businesses but so would allowing it to be watered down with tons more red tape," said FSB national employment chairman Alan Tyrrell.
An FSB spokesman said the fact that Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Alistair Darling was due to attend the meeting himself, rather than sending a junior minister, was a signal that a deal could be about to be struck.
The Trade Union Council said the UK no longer needed the opt-out, because:
Fewer workers are now working more than 48 hours - roughly 3.3m instead of 4m eight years ago
Some 1.5m workers would cease working more than 48 hours per week if their working hours were averaged over 12 months
Up to one million "autonomous workers" such as senior managers are exempt from the restriction anyway
"This means that only 800,000 to 1m UK employees would have to make a serious change to their working patterns," the TUC said.