As the politicians wrangle, companies get on with it

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Despite the Government's campaign against the working time directive, private sector companies have already started talks with unions on how the law will apply.

The first to reach an agreement on behalf of 1,100 firms employing 20,000 people was the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association, which has secured a deal allowing them maximum flexibility over the 48-hour week.

The MSF white collar and technical union has agreed that companies can take advantage of "derogations" from the strict letter of the directive so that working time is averaged out over 12 months rather than the stipulated four months.

Peter Rimmer, head of employment affairs at the association, said his organisation had carried out a detailed review of the law some months ago and had prepared the way for yesterday's judgment by the European Court. The deal would give the sector considerable freedom and was a "pragmatic" approach to the directive.

"We had to recognise that when the Advocate General ruled against the Government's appeal earlier this year, there was a degree of inevitability about the whole issue."

Unions at a Japanese-owned motor components company, Denso Marston, are expecting to sign an accord incorporating the directive into their collective agreement. The company employs 2,000 workers at plants at Leeds, Shipley and Telford.

Elsewhere the printing industry has already begun discussions with the GPMU union on how companies will be able to cope with the massive fluctuations in demand experienced by the sector while still adhering to the directive. The pre-Christmas period, for instance, means that many employees are working overtime in greetings card companies with some exceeding the 48-hour limit.

The British Printing Industries Federation opposes the directive in principle, but has arranged a joint seminar with the union in order to come to terms with it.

Andrew Brown, employment affairs director at the federation, said: "We don't like the directive, it is badly worded and will impede our ability to give customer service, but the ruling is the ruling." He pointed out that any manufacturing industry which was subject to fluctuations in demand would need to examine how the law would affect them and he urged the Government to produce a consultative document as soon as possible.

Preliminary talks have also been held at British Steel, which employs 43,000 workers in the United Kingdom. More will follow, a spokesman said. The privatised company is concerned in particular on how the rules on night working and shifts would affect production.

Keith Brookman, general secretary of the ISTC steel union, said his organisation was keen to offer the company flexibility but was also concerned to introduce changes which would benefit members.