Truckers' chaos may trigger EU controls

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN Commission will promise tough new rules restricting hours for transport workers if today's strike of European truck drivers wrecks a deal between unions and management.

The intervention comes as British travellers brace themselves for lengthy delays, particularly in France, brought about by a day of action to highlight conditions in the industry. The militant French truckers plan action on the borders, which could effectively seal off the country for 24 hours. They are also promising go-slows, convoys and "filters" when other drivers are stopped, picketed and allowed to pass.

The promise of new transport regulations, under the controversial Working Time Direc- tive (WTD) will alarm Eurosceptics and industry employers, particularly in the UK.

The new package of measures is likely to stipulate minimum rest periods for drivers in all 15 European member states, but fall short of a blanket 48-hour week in an industry where work patterns are irregular. Transport workers, with junior doctors, were initially exempted from the terms of the directive, which lays down a maximum 48-hour week for most workers.

However the Commission, which is anxious to impose uniform regulations among European hauliers, later suggested that office staff and other so-called "non-mobile" transport workers should be covered by the directive.

It also called for a negotiated agreement for the remaining workers between unions and management. These, more sensitive, talks are due to come to a head on 18 September.

Today Neil Kinnock, Transport Commissioner, and Padraig Flynn, Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner, will promise their own action if a deal is not done. "If they fail to conclude this agreement we will have to step in because it is a very important sector," a Commission spokesperson said yesterday. In Brussels there was some surprise at the timing of today's industrial action as negotiations were proceeding ahead of the crucial 18 September meeting. But there was optimism that the deal could be struck, despite today's action. Commission officials described it as a "day-long strike designed to make a point" and played down the prospect of a prolonged blockade.

Union sources suggested an agreement may be reached that would limit the working week to an average of around 60 hours, reflecting the more flexible structure of truck driving. But detailed negotiations are still under way to clarify if time spent, for example, waiting to clear Customs should count towards the total. Unions argue the action had been called to draw attention to conditions in the industry, especially driver fatigue, blamed on unregulated hours, but not linked directly to the wider talks.

In Britain Daniel Hodges, spokesman for the Road Haulage Association (RHA), said: "What we wish to ensure is better enforcement of existing negotiations before introducing more regulations which would be difficult ... to enforce."

The RHA also wants to know what the Commission will do if"the unions do not feel that their demands have been met". The Commission, which has a duty to ensure free movement, said yesterday that it will monitor the situation on blockades.