Working hours ruling to launch wave of claims

European ruling: Government hoping for concessions as EU court set to give employees minimum rights to time off and holidays
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The Government is set to face a wave of legal action on behalf of millions of workers over the working time directive.

Ministers will act quickly to implement the law on the 48-hour week if, as expected, the European Court upholds the validity of the directive tomorrow.But they cannot possibly meet the 23 November legal deadline for enactment of the directive, set three years after a European Union Employment Council pushed through the provision.

The Government challenged the directive in the European Court, arguing that it should not have been dressed up as a health and safety measure.

John Major says it was agreed at Maastricht that social policy should not be smuggled into law under health and safety provisions and he is demanding a further treaty change to rectify the expected judgment. But in spite of weekend reports that Jacques Chirac, the French President, was sympathetic to Mr Major's complaint, the British are not expected to have many allies.

However, the news tomorrow may not be all bad for Britain. There were signs that the defeat could be softened by concessions. The European Commission appeared yesterday to be anticipating demands from the court for the directive to be trimmed back.

The TUC pointed out yesterday that the working time directive's provisions on holidays would have the most direct and widespread impact in the British labour market.

One in eight British workers - most of them part-timers and women - could benefit from new rights to paid annual leave. There were no exceptions to such provisions unlike the clauses dealing with a 48-hour week.

Official figures showed that almost 2.5 million employees enjoyed no paid holidays, 4.1 million less than three weeks and 5.9 million less than four weeks. The directive introduces a three-week legal minimum, increasing to four weeks after three years.

Millions of others will receive new rights to a 48-hour week. Among the exceptions, however, are executives, transport employees, sea fishermen and doctors in training. For those industries affected by the law there are provisions for flexible application through collective bargaining and scope for employers to persuade their workers to agree to work for longer.

Trade unions are to launch court proceedings on behalf of public sector workers and employees in the privatised utilities. Such workers stand the best chance of successful court action under the directive.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of Unison, Britain's largest union, said yesterday that it would take action on behalf of individuals "disadvantaged" by Britain's failure to implement the directive on time.

Unison is targeting night workers, people who work shifts, part-time workers and those with no entitlement to annual leave.

Roger Lyons, leader of white collar and technical union MSF, said that his organisation would seek to negotiate changes.

John Monks, TUC general secretary, said the Government's appeal against the directive was based on "a narrow-minded resistance to all things European".