Working Time Directive: Commission agrees more time for negotiations

The European Commission has agreed to a joint proposal from the European social partners to extend the negotiating period on reviewing the Working Time Directive to 31st December 2012. The Commission reports that  negotiations are ‘making progress’.

László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion said today: “The social partners have my best wishes for a successful outcome to their talks on these very important issues. The Commission is willing to provide any support the social partners would find helpful in the context of these negotiations.”

The Commission consulted the European social partners during 2010 about possible changes to the Working Time Directive. Under Article 154 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, the Commission must consult with management and workers at EU level before proposing any changes to EU social legislation, including EU labour law.

Under Article 154(4) TFEU, the EU level social partners have the right, if the employer and worker representatives so agree, to enter negotiations themselves on what changes should be made.

The review of the Working Time Directive has been dogged by pressure from some employers to make significant changes – as well as outright opposition from countries such as the UK, where right wing politicians are pressing for many safeguards on working time dumped to allow for long working hours rather than workers having the right to a decent work-life balance.

The opt-out allows individuals to sign away the right to limited working time to an average of 48 hours per week over 17 weeks (which can be extended to 52 weeks by agreement). The opt-outs are sometimes signed under pressure from employers, or by employers presenting employees misleading information to workers as to their rights, or needs of the business or by a misunderstanding of the law.

Following the Commission’s consultations with the main cross-sectoral social partners at EU level the Commission was informed late last year that they had jointly decided to launch negotiations on reviewing the Working Time Directive.

The main cross-sectoral social partners at EU level are:

  • BusinessEurope
  • CEEP (European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public services)
  • UEAPME (The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises) representing employers
  • ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) representing workers.

The social partners’ negotiations on the Working Time Directive began in early December 2011 and will now continue, under the extension of time just agreed, up to 31st December 2012.

The social partners enjoy autonomy under the Treaty as regards the content and structure of their negotiations. 

If the social partners reach an agreement, they are entitled under Article 155 of the TFEU to ask for its implementation as a Directive. The Commission would then present the social partners’ agreement to the EU’s Council of Ministers in the form of a Directive. Under the Treaty, the Council may either adopt the agreement as a Directive, or reject it, by qualified majority, but may not amend it.

The European Parliament is informed, but is not a co-legislator.

This procedure has been followed in previous cases. For example, the 1997 Part-Time Work Directive and the 1999 Fixed-Term Work Directive  are both based on agreements negotiated by the main cross-sectoral social partners at EU level.

If the social partners do not reach an agreement, the Commission would then come forward with a legislative proposal to amend the Directive, based on its previous consultation and impact assessment work.

The Working Time Directive was originally introduced under health and safety legislation in 1988, but the UK secured an opt-out  of the 48 hour working week and can work longer hours – it is not possible to opt out of the other requirements of the Directive.

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