ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Europe : une semaine de travail de plus de 65 heures !
by Yves Housson
Translated Saturday 14 June 2008, by
While our country is preparing for a national day of demonstrations on June 17th in defense of the retirement system and the 35 hour work week, the European Union, because of France’s change of policy, sends out a very negative signal regarding time spent at work.
Thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy and his government, the European Union is entertaining the prospect of a 78 hour work week ! The crime was perpetrated yesterday at dawn, in Brussels, at the end of a meeting of labour ministers from the 27-nation bloc.
The revision of the European directive on working-time has been under deliberation for several years. According to the text adopted yesterday by the relative majority, the 48 hour work week, prescribed by European legislation in effect up until now, remains valid. But going by that ruling, as with the 35 hour work week, as it appears in the French government’s proposal : that supposed legal safeguard seems more and more imaginary. The agreement, in fact, provides for possible waivers to the 48 hour rule, by way of man-to-man understandings between an employee and his employer.
The only reservation being that such an option be provided for in the company’s collective agreement, in a pact among social partners, or inscribed in national laws: the maximum length of the working week could henceforward attain an magnitude of 60 hours — even up to 65 hours, the text stipulates, if part of that period includes inactive on-call time. And that limit could also be overcome if a collective agreement so allows.
An unacceptable agreement
This attempt to increase hours worked, called « opt-out », was until now applicable in the United-Kingdom, the European paradise of social exception, where time spent on the job can reach up to 78 hours a week, the only binding rule being that of an obligatory minimum rest period of 11 hours a day. Under the pressure of the British, European rulings had integrated the « opt-out » principle, but for a temporary period, at the end of which it was to be scrapped. Yesterday’s agreement excludes any such restictions : « the ’opt-out’ is perpetuated ad vitam eternam and can henceforth be generalized », adds Guy Juquel, of the CGT French labour union’s European sector. The London government, which had been fighting to obtain that, together with its Irish counterpart and with the collaboration of Poland, immediately expressed their satisfaction, speaking of a « good accord ».
Conversely, the Confédération européenne des syndicats (CES), or European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which had warned against the adoption of the provisions considering that they do not protect « workers against health and security dangers induced by long working hours », has qualified the agreement as « highly unsatisfactory and unacceptable ».
Moreover, the « regression » denounced by union supporters does not stop there. The text signed in Brussels introduces, for the first time, the notion of « periods of inactive on-call work », which can no longer be counted as actual work time. That provision affects all fields, particularly medical professions. It eradicates, in a stoke of the pen, two rulings by the European Court of Justice stipulating that inactive on-call work time be calculated as working hours. Monday, the association des médecins urgentistes de France (AMUF), an association grouping French Emergency Ward doctors, warned, yet once more, that : the adoption of such a measure would constitute « an unprecedented step backwards, unacceptable for doctors as well as for patients ».
Just for good measure, in the obvious aim of helping to swallow those two big, bitter pills, the European Labour Ministers had adopted, in the same text, an agreement concerning temporary agency workers and providing that, from the very first day of work, they would have the same benefits (wages, social coverage, etc.) as permanent employees. A real progress, lauded as such by the CES/ETUC, which, nevertheless, rejected that it be « utilized as a reason or an excuse » for adopting the directive on work time.
A true incitement to deregulation, to alignment, not for the better, but for the worse, of European situations from the wage earners’ point of view, on the subject of time spent at work, this text has not met unanimity among the 27. Five countries (Spain, Belgium, Greece, Hungary and Cyprus) abstained from voting, harshly criticizing the principle of ’opt out’ being given unlimited approval, as illustrated by the Spanish delegate who spoke of « reverse gear » policies. « This is not a social advancement », the Belgian minister, Joëlle Milquet, confirmed for his part. Up to yesterday’s meeting, France was advocating the same cause as those countries, which allowed them to block the British offensive for wide acceptance of "opt-out". But since Sarkozy’s coming to power, the French position in this matter has been overturned in accordance with the political concept « work longer, (to earn more) », which leads to recently proposed laws intended to break apart the 35 hour work week. It requires all of the intellectual dishonesty of French Labour Minister, Xavier Bertrand, who dares pretend, relative to the Brussels accord, that « the time has clearly come to re-inaugurate a more socially oriented Europe ». On Monday, the minister tried to be reassuring in affirming that "opt-out" « is not for France », where collective agreements have legal primacy. We should, all the same, stay vigilant.
The fact remains that France has just distiquished itself by eviscerating the last remaining social substance of Europe, already reduced to its most simple expression, in making a European standard of the 60 hour (and more) work week . A very bad omen for the French presidency of the EU, which begins on July 1st. Looks are now turning toward the European Parliament to which the accord should be referred, and which, until now, has been opposed to the perpetuation of "opt-out".