Part-time jobs deal heralds unions' revival

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The first sign that union leaders will have a critical influence on British legislation emerged yesterday when representatives of workers and employers agreed 6 million part-timers should have the same rights as full-time colleagues.

While the deal was struck on the Continent between the European TUC and the equivalent body for employers, it will eventually become law in Britain.

Because of the Government's impending signature to the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty, the agreement will reach the British statute book within two years and will be especially welcome to female workers who make up the vast majority of part-timers.

Staff who do not work full time have the same rights to claim unfair dismissal and redundancy following a House of Lords ruling two years ago but they do not have the same contractual rights, such as paid holidays, sick leave and staff discounts. Yesterday's accord will right those perceived wrongs.

The part-time workers' deal will now go before the European Social Affairs Council later this year, which is expected to ratify the agreement so that it becomes law.

Under the Social Chapter, British unions will be able to exercise influence on such legislation along with their Continental counterparts. The potential for increasing union power in the UK was the main reason why the previous government opposed the social section of the Maastricht treaty and secured an opt-out.

Adair Turner, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, accepted the inevitability of the new relationships between both sides of commerce but said the proposed law on part-time workers would have a "limited impact".

He said: "Our approach to the Social Chapter will be to look at each proposal which emerges on its merits". He said where laws were proposed with which the CBI disagreed, they would be opposed. "The CBI is strongly committed to a flexible labour market and to equal opportunities. The agreement should not undermine existing flexibility, but reflect the high regard employers now place on their part-time employees." Mr Turner said most part-timers already received equal employment rights.

Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said she was "delighted" with yesterday's agreement. John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, described the deal as "ground-breaking".The agreement was formally signed last night in The Hague in the presence of Wim Kok, Dutch Prime Minister, and Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission.