'End campaign against 48-hour week'

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John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, yesterday urged employers to end their campaign against European legislation to impose a maximum 48-hour working week on British companies.

In the first speech to the CBI's annual conference by a TUC leader, Mr Monks insisted that the rise of what he called "the European dimension" was inevitable, despite the Government's opt-out from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, and the desire of businesses to "be like Greta Garbo and be left alone".

The European Court of Justice will today hand out judgment on the UK's objections to the directive on working hours, which gets round the British opt-out on social legislation by treating the 48-hour week as a health and safety issue.

Mr Monks appealed for a partnership with employers to help implement the new rules. "If it does happen I hope that it will lead to consultation about how it can be applied flexibly and efficiently, but effectively in the UK," he told delegates.

The TUC leader pledged to work for a new partnership with business, but in a combative address argued that the British tradition of benevolent employers was getting weaker.

He said: "The relentless pressure to enhance shareholder value has damaged it in many a British company and in some cases destroyed it altogether." He gave the example of Marks & Spencer, which last week announced it would take on an extra 2,000 staff and saw its shares immediately marked down by City investors.

Though Mr Monk's speech was warmly applauded by delegates, his attitude to Europe exposed sharp differences in the conference hall. Another speaker, John Neill, the chief executive of the Unipart car parts group, attacked the "sclerotic vision" behind the Social Chapter.

"We don't need to sign a blank cheque to Brussels," he said. Unipart is well known for its high-profile employee training schemes with a company "university" and its backing for the concept of stakeholding. However the company derecognised unions from its plants in 1991.

Mr Neill said Britain now ranked far ahead of France, Germany or Italy on labour flexibility as a result of policies pioneered by Lady Thatcher in the early Eighties. Imposing new burdens on business, he said, would see the UK flattened by "the Asian juggernauts".

Several other speakers were more conciliatory, backing Mr Monk's talk of partnerships with unions. Bruce Warman, personnel director of the Vauxhall car company and a former colleague of Mr Neill, said: "We have European legislation ebbing at our shores. Maybe it's a tidal wave and we cannot ignore trade unions."