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EU: European Court To Rule On 48-Hour Work Week

London, 12 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The European Court is expected this week to uphold labor legislation which provides for a maximum working week of 48 hours and sets a minimum of four weeks' annual paid holiday for all workers in the European Union countries.

The ruling will be watched closely by the Central and Eastern European nations queuing for EU membership because it's expected to reinforce the principle of European-wide regulation to protect workers' rights. (When they join the EU the new entrants will have to abide by the rules.)

The directive on working hours was adopted by the European Council on November 23, 1993, when EU states were given three years to incorporate it into domestic law. (The deadline expires next week.)

The directive sets a maximum average working week of 48 hours; a minimum of three weeks' paid holiday, rising to four by 1999; and it lays down minimum rest periods and rest breaks. It also says that night workers should not work more than eight hours in any 24-hour period. (Some categories of workers are exempt from the directive: including transport workers, the fishing industry, and junior doctors.)

All 15 EU nations have accepted these measures except Britain, which says this kind of labor market regulation leads to a loss of jobs because it raises the cost to employers of hiring workers. But Britain's case is expected to be dismissed by the European Court tomorrow.

Is a 48-hour limit on the working week necessary? An ideological battle is raging between the European Commission and Britain's Conservative Government, and between unions and employers, over the extent to which governments should legislate on working conditions.

The European Commission says research shows that workers' health can be damaged by over-long hours, especially if jobs involve static or strained postures, repetitive movements or heavy or complicated tasks.

But Britain says over-regulation is not the answer. It has called on the European Commission to publish sensitive evidence believed to demonstrate a link between rigid labor laws and rising unemployment.

The British argue that unemployment in Germany and France has risen to record levels because firms there are over-regulated and are forced to carry heavy social costs. In contrast, unemployment in Britain's lightly regulated labor market has been falling for months.

But the Germans and French say that British workers have minimal social protection if they fall ill or lose their jobs and that, because of inadequate labor laws, they work by far the longest hours in the EU.

Trade unions argue that long working hours undermine family life, lead to more work accidents, and cause work-related illnesses. But business leaders say the additional cost burdens created by the EU directive will make European firms less competitive on world markets.

For their part, critics of statutory limits say it is an infringement on personal liberty to prevent someone working more than 48 hours in order to make more money if that is what he or she desires.

The debate has focused attention on working conditions across Western Europe. In practice, a 40-hour week has been routine in most industries, including those of Britain, for years. However, the trend in Germany and France has been to a 37 or even 35 hour week.

Italy, Ireland, Germany and Greece have a statutory maximum working week of 48 hours. In Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, it is 40 hours. In the Netherlands, it's 45 to 48 hours: Denmark has an "agreed norm" of 37 hours. Annual paid holiday entitlement varies widely from 30 days (France, Denmark, Spain) to bottom-placed Ireland (15 days).

If, as expected, the European Court upholds the directive on working hours, British employers will have no option but to give millions of workers -- most of them part-timers and women -- new rights. As one analyst said, and as Eastern and Central Europeans will note: "The powers of the European Court to rule on issues affecting member countries have been widely underestimated."