‘It's not over yet.’ On the benches of the European popular party (EPP), MEPs won't be surprised if the decision adopted by the parliamentary commission isn't approved in plenary session. Standing behind the socialist MEP Alejandro Cercas, 70% of the parliamentary commission working on employment has voted against the European council's proposal to implement a working week of sixty to sixty five hours in the European Union.
Amongst other things, the proposal won't count medical on-call time as hours worked. Cercas is also opposed to the fact that the United Kingdom and to Poland are granted exceptions ('opt-outs').
European or national problem?
This week, the battle promises to be fierce. The liberals seem to be ready to fight for the directive to be approved office by office, politician by politician. About half of the EPP MEPs - socialists from Britain and from certain eastern countries like Poland or Hungary - are at their sides. On the other side, the majority of the socialists are opposed. They have received the support of the greens, the unitary left and many members of the EPP, following the example of the Spanish. ‘In Spain, the socialist party (PSOE) launched a citizens awareness campaign against the 65 hours so that during the European elections, people identify them as defending the interests of the workers,' explains Portuguese socialist María João Rodríguez. She also highlights the fact that ‘people are finally realising that European problems are national problems.’
‘If I have to go to the emergency room, I wouldn't like to find myself in the hands of a doctor who has just worked 64 hours straight,’ remarks Anna Colombo wryly, the right-hand woman to European parliament socialist group leader Martin Schulz. Portuguese communist Ilda Figueiredo shares this position. She considers the proposed directive presented by the European council as an ‘inadmissible step backwards on 100 years of fighting for workers' rights.’
'If I have to go to ER, I wouldn't like to find myself in the hands of a doctor who has just worked 64 hours straight'
British liberal Elizabeth Lynne does not favor this proposal either, particularly in what concerns certain sectors: ‘I don't support the 65 hour week when people's lives are in the hands of workers, like doctors or truck drivers for example.’
What is the benefit for workers?
Lynne does not want to impose legislation on all of Europe that would allow a 65 hour work week. She refuses to waver on allowing an 'opting out' exception to be made for the United Kingdom. ‘If we restrict the work week, we go against the interests of workers,’ she maintains, basing her argument on the fact that in the United Kingdom, there is no tradition of collective agreements or of heavily militant unions.
‘Each worker can freely opt out of working more than 48 hours, but only four weeks after having signed a contract, so outside of European legislation. But the worker can suspend this if they wish to. So we avoid employers having to sign two or three contracts at the same time with their employees in order to allow them to work longer. It's about promoting transparency and avoiding social dumping; in fact, I know many employers in Portugal or in Spain who cannot sign contracts with workers because they don't wish to work legally,’ says Lynne.
‘In times of crisis, we must shorten the work week and spread out the work to combat unemployment. It is also necessary to reduce the profit generated by capital, in order to raise workers' salaries and relaunch the economy through consumption,’ says Figueiredo. ‘But how can politicians limit the work week for others, when they themselves are the first to work 70 hours a week?’ replies Lynne. She concludes: ‘I defend workers' rights to work when they want to. On this point, the crisis does not seem to favour the theories of the socialists, the greens or the communists: in this crisis, workers now need more money. They must be allowed to work more.’
Socialists on the offense
Pablo G. S. lives in Cadiz, a Spanish city particularly burdened by unemployment. During tourist season, he works in a seaside bar. ‘My contract says 37 hours, but I work 60 hours and I'm not paid more for it,’ he says. ‘If I complain, the boss won't hire me the next year, and it's the same if I tell him that I want to be paid for those 60 hours.’ ‘Since when are entrepreneurs and their employees on equal ground?’ asks Anna Colombo.
During the European socialist party council that is meeting in Madrid to plan their strategy for the June 2009 elections, economist Juan Moscoso calls for a change in attitude: ‘I think that this story of 65 hours is not going to happen, and that's a victory for the progressives. But as of now, each time we reject one of our opponent's measures, we have to propose an alternative, to take back the political initiative.’