Addressing journalist in the early hours of the morning, Slovenian Minister of Labour & Social Affairs Marjeta Cotman, who chaired the Council meeting, said, "The proposals provides the necessary guarantees and protection for workers, while at the same time provides flexibility in organising the working time." The presidency said the accords would provide the basis on which temporary agency workers will be entitled to the same pay and basic entitlements as ordinary workers.
The late night agreement by employment ministers follows years of bitter wrangling between member states over how much protection workers should have and how much flexibility employers need. The agreement sets the normal limit employees in the EU can work per week at 48 hours, but allows them to boost that limit to 60 hours if they choose to sign a so-called "opt-out." To protect the employee from abuse, the deal also says that they can only sign up to the extra hours once they have been in the job for a month, and that they cannot be sanctioned at work for refusing to sign the opt-out or for withdrawing from it.
The compromise also takes in the rights of temporary workers, insisting that they be given the same rights regarding pay, leave and maternity leave as full-time employees, and that they be informed about permanent job opportunities within the company. Individual member states can, however, follow different rules both on the 60-hour limit and on agency workers if unions and employers agree to it. According to the EU passage rules for proposals, the draft directives must now go before the European Parliament. Warning the hurdles ahead, Commissioner Spidla said, "The ball is now in the court of the European Parliament and I sincerely hope that this solid agreement will find a majority in the plenary."
Echoing these fears, Liberal Democrat European Employment and Social Affairs spokesperson Liz Lynne MEP in the European Parliament said, "The Governments hard won deal now runs the danger of being ripped apart by Socialist MEPs who have for years been waiting for these controversial dossiers to return to the European Parliament."
On regulation of Temporary Agency Workers Lynne said, "Onesize- fits-all legislation at a EU level in this area is unnecessary as it fails to recognise the wide range of different practices across the EU, from Greece, which only made temporary worker agencies legal in the past few years, to the UK and Netherlands where it has long been established practice."
Welcoming the agreement, German Conservative MEP Anja Weisgerber (EPP) was more optimistic saying, "It provides the flexibility needed on the ground, and it is consistent with the standards of the European Court of Justice. I hope that Parliament and the Council will reach agreement on a final version by the end of the year."
The labour laws have been a bone of contention within the EU since they were proposed in 2004. The proposals have been criticised by business groups that feel that small to medium sized enterprises will struggle to pay for the new entitlements for agency staff.
Britain's small businesses represented by the Federation of Small Businesses (UK) welcomed the UK's continued opt-out from the 48-hour maximum working week but added that the price for securing the opt-out was far too high. Tina Sommer, Chairman, EU and International Affairs, Federation of Small Businesses, said, "Retention of the UK's Working Time Directive opt-out is welcome, but the price was far too high for employees and employers alike. Why should we be forced to choose between the two?
"The back-room manner in which this deal was negotiated by big business and Trade Unions should be of great concern to all those who will suffer the consequences," Sommer added. On the other hand, EuroCommerce Secretary General Xavier Durieu said, "Finding a political agreement on such important and sensitive issues is indeed a plus for the commerce sector." "It is clear that Europe needs rules on working time which will provide legal certainty on this delicate issue. As far as the agreement on temporary agency workers is concerned, it is a welcome practical implementation of the flexicurity approach," Durieu concluded.