EU work plan prompts Tory backlash

Trades Union Congress: Extending maximum week to transport workers and call for new employment rights draw parties' fire
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The Independent Online
European plans to extend the maximum 48-hour week to new groups, including doctors and transport workers, were welcomed by the TUC yesterday, but provoked a furious reaction from Conservative Euro-sceptics.

John Monks, TUC general secretary, said he would submit evidence to Brussels that pilots, seafarers and professional drivers who are overworked pose a serious danger to safety.

But Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Southend East, warned yesterday that the plans confirmed his "nightmare" that the Government would be powerless to resist the imposition of the entire Social Chapter by the back door.

"The Government know what the score is. I just wish that they would accept there is a crisis here and it is a desperately serious crisis," he said.

William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, argued for greater flexibility rather than further European regulation of the labour market in a speech in the City.

He said it would be "crazy" to deny that people had feelings of job insecurity, but said: "Things are not as pessimistic as they seem."

About half the people now entering temporary work find more permanent jobs within a year, he said, and "Britain is much better at moving people up from the bottom pay levels to higher pay levels".

Britain was a much more upwardly mobile society, more like America than other European countries, he said.

The Independent revealed yesterday that the European Commission is drawing up proposals to extend its maximum 48-hour week rule to people who usually work long hours but are excluded from the existing European law.

A spokeswoman for the employment commissioner, Padraig Flynn, told BBC Radio: "We have said we need to look again at these sectors because there is no technical justification for the exclusion of a number of these sectors and activities from the directive."

Mr Monks welcomed the proposal which would guarantee proper rest breaks and benefit more than half a million British transport workers.

The TUC believes transport workers would stand to benefit most from legal limits to working time. The average British lorry driver works a 62-hour week, flight crews can work up to 60 hours a week and case studies include a ship's captain who worked 98 hours over a seven-day period.

But the Government has challenged the existing European law restricting the working week on the grounds that it should be a Social Chapter measure which would not apply in Britain. The European Court is expected to rule next month that the law is a health and safety measure which applies in all member countries under the single-market treaty provisions.

Health and safety measures can be introduced by majority votes, which means they can be imposed against the wishes of the British Government.

Labour is pledged to sign up to the Social Chapter, strongly supported by the trade unions, which regard Europe as an important guarantor of employees' rights and public safety.