- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s top labor official warned EU governments yesterday that most of them could face legal action from Brussels unless they adhere to a 48-hour limit on the workweek.

EU employment ministers will try to break a deadlock today on closing loopholes that have allowed Britain and other countries to avoid the requirement. Talks on updating the 1993 rules have been under way for more than two years.

EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla appealed yesterday for EU governments to compromise.

Mr. Spidla warned that if no deal is reached, he could step up legal action against violators of the existing rules — which includes most of the 25 EU nations.

“We have to do our utmost to try and reach an agreement,” Mr. Spidla told reporters.

A growing number of rulings from the EU’s high court have demanded that Britain and other countries enforce the 48-hour limit or face fines.

The EU court last year ruled that the labor law should also apply to doctors, nurses and emergency workers such as firefighters. The ruling said that hours when such people are “on call,” but not actually working, should be counted against 48-hour limit.

EU officials worry that if the status of emergency workers is not resolved, Europe could soon face a shortage of doctors, who have been refusing hospital work out amid frustration over long hours.

“We need a solution that enables us to ensure the accessibility of health services in the member states,” said Finland’s labor minister, Tarja Filatov, ahead of the talks. “This kind of illegal situation is … likely to weaken the credibility of EU labor law.”

London wants companies and workers to come to voluntary agreements, while Germany and Poland also want countries to have flexibility in applying the limit on work hours.

On the other side, France, which has a 35-hour work week, wants all loopholes closed.

Mr. Filatov has presented a compromise plan that would allow workers the flexibility to work up to 60 hours a week but only over a three-month period.

Separately, the European Commission reported yesterday that the EU created 1 million new jobs last year. But Mr. Spidla said the figures showed that EU governments had to do more to reform their labor markets, improving lifelong learning and adding more flexibility to labor laws to ensure more jobs.

He based his conclusions on two EU surveys showing the EU continues to lag behind other economies including the United States and Japan in terms of employment and productivity.

He urged EU governments to adopt the Danish model, which allows flexible work contracts but keeps in place employment-security benefits.

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