On the eve of a meeting of the EC's social affairs council, David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, said: 'I very much hope it doesn't come to that, but it's wholly inappropriate for the directive to be brought in under health and safety rules.'
Mr Hunt said he would seek to convince his counterparts from the other 11 EC countries that Europe was facing a 'crisis in competitiveness' and that trying to force employers and employees to restrict working hours was unnecessary and would result in the loss of world markets.
He will abstain when the vote is taken if he fails to persuade a majority of ministers to drop the proposal, although he is expected to secure agreement that British workers should be allowed to work longer if they wish to, and a concession giving Britain 10 years to implement it instead of three.
Because the directive was proposed under health and safety provisions it can be passed on a majority vote.
An abstention is calculated to preserve Britain's position to claim before the European Court of Justice that the European Commission had no jurisdiction to treat the directive as a health and safety measure.
Mr Hunt claimed the dispute would not have arisen had the Maastricht treaty been ratified, because working hours would have been dealt with under the Social Chapter, which Britain had not signed up to, while the principle of subsidiarity could have been invoked to insist the issue be left to member states.
He said that the commission should be 'taking measures to improve competitiveness across Europe. Leading community-countries' labour costs are significantly higher than our competitors'. '
The directive would provide for a maximum 48-hour working week, a minimum 11 hours of rest per 24, and a minimum of four weeks' paid holiday. It also includes limits on young people's hours and night working.
Workers will be allowed to exceed the 48-hour week if they want, while those at sea will be excluded and probably divers, oil rig workers and junior doctors as well. If workers are not prepared to do more than 48 hours, they can claim legal protection.
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