Firms set to toe EU line on workers

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The Independent Online
Many of Britain's biggest companies are expected to agree the establishment of European works councils, despite the Government's Maastricht opt-out, In particular, Coats Viyella and Courtaulds, the textile groups, GKN, the engineering company, Guinness and Bowater are likely soon to follow the recent lead of United Biscuits in voluntarily setting up consultative processes for employees.

Other groups in the financial sector such as Commercial Union, NatWest and Barclays, are also known to be considering establishing systems of the kind envisaged in a directive coming into force next year.

Similar decisions by up to half of Britain's top 100 companies are expected, further evidence that business is falling into line with Brussels in the teeth of ministers' refusal to sign the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty. Under the"opt-out" the re is no compunction on British companies to include their workers in the arrangements.

Last week the GMB general union announced that it had struck agreements covering 60,000 local government contract workers enshrining European pay guarantees when employees are transferred from the public to the private sector.

The TUC is anxious not to discourage companies considering the establishment of works councils by "premature publicity", but Congress House officials contend "enlightened self-interest" will mean that eventually all of the 108 British organisations covered by the directive will include employees. At least one British company abandoned an early attempt to set up a council after news of talks leaked out and senior managers from other companies urged them to call off negotiations, the TUC says.

Not one company has replied with an unequivocal "no" when approached by unions, but some have said that it was "too early" to consider the issue.

The European directive means that any company with more than 1,000 workers in countries belonging to the European Union could qualify.

The rule stipulates that if such an organisation has at least 150 employees in a second EU country, it must set up a consultative process. Under the system, companies have a duty to inform and consult employees on the commercial performance of the organisation and on employment policies.

It is clear companies are falling into line through consideration of practicalities rather than political conviction.

The timetable for the introduction of the European law makes allowance for voluntary deals before the deadline next year when domestic legislation must be brought in line. If an organisation has failed to sign a deal by then, any council subsequently established will have to conform to the detailed provisions of the directive. Where companies still refuse to abide by the law, it is envisaged that punitive clauses will be invoked.

Continental trade unionists have agreed with their British counterparts that all works council agreements should include provision for the participation of their British colleagues.

European union leaders have indicated they will refuse to sign any deal which excludes Britons.

Senior managers are aware that a refusal to strike a deal could lead to the imposition of the sort of detailed arrangements they may want to avoid. Union obervers say that time is running out for companies to agree structures that best suit their corporate philosophy.

British union leaders also contend that it is slowly dawning on companies that will be forced to set up councils for continental employees, that it could be complicated to exclude British counterparts. Most of the organisations covered by the directive employ most of their workers in Britain.

Much of the information supplied to continental workers would often be of considerable significance to British workers.

The possibility that a Labour government may be elected is concentrating managerial minds, TUC officials say.

Many continental politicians are also seeking to force Britain to accept the social dimension of the Treaty of Rome when it is renegotiated next year.