ECONOMY

Mediterranean group blocks exemption clause from EU working-hour regulations

Maximum working hours per week in the European Union will not reach 65 or even 70 anytime soon, at least for one year, Employment Minister Savvas Tsitouridis believes. His input in the EU Council of Ministers last week contributed to the indefinite postponement of the debate on work hours. The Council of Labor Ministers’ session that met last Tuesday in Brussels was one of the most stormy ones – as the Finnish presidency was unable to achieve a compromise with a group of five member states (France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Cyprus) which, despite its internal differences, showed a united front in the end, after interventions from country leaders to their ministers. Such an intervention came from French President Jacques Chirac, who spoke on the telephone with his minister just before the most crucial phase of the negotiations. Other sources suggested that Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi had reached a deal with his British counterpart Tony Blair, which created some unease for the Italian minister, a former unionist for Turin car industries. The background of this council had other unpredictable elements, too, such as the Italian unionists who suddenly, two days before the council session, stormed into a conference hall in Venice where the labor ministers of France, Spain and Italy were meeting, forcing them to leave via the back door. Fortunately for their Greek counterpart, he was not present, as he was in Dublin at the conference of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The Council in Brussels confirmed the special relationship and attitude of the European Right, which follows Charles de Gaulle’s ideas with issues defending the European welfare state. It also highlighted the prospects for new types of alliances based on avoiding social dumping from the new terms of competition that most new member states are determined to follow. The latter have no hesitation in agreeing to even the most extreme positions on working hours, as their unconditional siding with the majority group has shown. Differences It is especially interesting that the council did not even have time to formally discuss the issue of work hours. The discussion was interrupted by the Finnish chairwoman when it was clear that the minority of five member-states would not back down in rejecting opting out of the European social chart that provides for a 48-hour work week. Many wonder what the real and practical value of this postponement is, when in Greece there is legislation that allows for working time to be extended beyond 48 hours per week. What does the maintenance of the 48-hour rule mean, when in this country it can reach 58 hours for a spell of four months or even one year? Furthermore, if the five hours of overtime are added to a week’s working time, this can come to 63 or 65 hours for a specific period. Yet there is a difference between the Anglo-Saxon and the Greek model, and it is an important one: In Greece any excess of set working time has to be agreed upon on the basis of collective labor bargaining. Therefore, it is not directly imposed by personal contract and cannot apply unless the company union or the workers’ council has agreed to it. In the case of the annual arrangement, should the two sides not agree, then the Arrangement Committee intervenes, consisting of two members from the employer’s side, two from the employees and a representative of the Labor Inspectorate. The law passed by the current government imposes that weekly working time cannot exceed 40 to 48 hours. In Greece, there is also the appropriate legal framework that includes doctors’ off-hours shifts into their normal working time. However its non-application is due to the high cost to the Health Ministry’s budget. Notably, working time violations by 23 member states concern exclusively the shifts of doctors. Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla has threatened these states with checks and recourse to the European Court.