Workers' rights at centre of Social Chapter debate: Colin Brown explains the aims of the Maastricht treaty's Social Chapter, which Britain did not sign

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THE Social Chapter - the source of the crisis over the Maastricht treaty - provides for the adoption of minimum Community-wide requirements for the protection of workers' health and safety.

It would also establish the principle of equal pay for women and men for work of equal value. The agreement, signed by 11 member states, excluding Britain, follows the Social Charter. That was adopted by the 11 in 1989, to put flesh on the bones of the chapter, and led to measures such as the working time directive with a proposal for a 48-hour week, to which Britain objected. The chapter sets out broad policy objectives, without details. Britain secured an opt-out from the chapter, which was contained in a protocol and an agreement attached to the main Maastricht treaty.

The 11 said their objectives under the chapter were the promotion of employment, improved living and working conditions, proper social protection, dialogue between management and labour, and the development of human resources with a view to lasting high employment and the combating of social exclusion.

The British opposed it on the ground that it would allow working conditions to be decided at Community level and would add unacceptable costs to business.

The chapter provides for co-operation on: improvement of the working environment to protect health and safety, working conditions, information and consultation of workers, equality between men and women with regard to labour market opportunities and treatment at work, and the integration of people excluded from the labour market. The European Council of Ministers, working largely by majority voting, would be able to adopt directives on minimum requirements for gradual implementation.

The chapter says the Community provisions will not apply to pay, the right of association, the right to strike or the right to impose lock-outs.

One aim of the Social Chapter was to avoid so-called 'social dumping' - the move of investment to countries with lower standards. There is concern that it is already taking place in Britain, with the transfer by Hoover of jobs from France to Scotland.