The public service union Unison yesterday declared that senior local government officials, residential social workers, ambulance and police support staff would be among the workers who should soon see a reduction in their working hours below 48 hours week.
The thousands of part-time workers who work in the public sector should benefit from an entitlement to three weeks' paid holiday, rising to four weeks in 1999. Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of Unison, said that cleaners, dinner ladies and people who work during term times at schools would be among those targeted. He added: "We will be vigilant in making sure that the directive is implemented properly and on time. And we will take legal action against employers and the Government if they fail."
John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general union, said his organisation had set aside pounds 250,000 for litigation against employers if necessary. "We want to make sure the Government doesn't try any third-form public schoolboy tricks to avoid implementing the law. We will also pursue with vigour any employer who jeopardises their workers by forcing them to work long hours."
In what might be regarded as a piece of mischief, the MSF technical and white-collar union announced that it would set up a telephone "hot line" to help businesses understand the directive. It has also prepared special information packs for companies to explain how they can implement the measures.
The Confederation of British Industry said it was disappointed at the ruling but urged the Government to take full advantage of the exemptions and begin consultation with business on implementation of the directive.
Speaking at its conference in Harrogate, Adair Turner, the CBI's director- general, described the directive as "legislation at its worst - detailed and prescriptive regulations followed by extensive caveats and exemptions". The CBI said it was vital that the Government implemented options that would allow individual employees to work 48 hours if they wished and permit employers to average the 48- hour week over 12 months.
The British Chambers of Commerce said that two-thirds of small businesses opposed a 48-hour week. According to a BCC survey, eight in ten firms felt it would impinge on their flexibility, while 43 per cent said it would increase administration costs. But the survey also showed that 91 per cent of those working more than 48 hours were doing so voluntarily. Such arrangements can stay in place.
Ian Peters, deputy director-general, said small firms would find it hardest to cope: "They haven't got the resources to defend themselves if they are taken to court."
Chris Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods, one of the biggest foods groups and a well-known Labour supporter, was less concerned. "It's much ado about nothing. We already have health and safety legislation over pilots and lorry drivers to prevent people working excessive hours," he argued.