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EU in showdown over working time

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. 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 labor 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. The average weekly working hours for full time workers in 2004: Hungary 41-hour, UK and Poland 42.5-hour, Spain and Greece 44-hour, France 40.5-hour, Denmark 40-hour, Lithuania 39-hour. (BBC News)