November 10, 2006

The regulatory mindset

Two MEPs (one UK Labour) write to the FT to deplore the UK stance on the Working Time directive. "Once again, we missed an opportunity to ensure that workers not only in the UK but across Europe are properly protected against the dangers of irregular hours and over-work" (my italics).

Er, doesn't the market do that? If workers are unhappy, they can move on. Only this week a UK bus company has confirmed that it is recruiting drivers in Poland because they stay in the job longer. (To help Polish recruits with their English they send them DVDs of "Only Fools and Horses". If they're going to work in Essex they also have to view DVDs of "Birds of a Feather". Yet they still want to come.)

Anyway the regulations don't stop a worker working longer hours. They only affect hours in one job. So it's perfectly legal for workers to exceed the limit provided they have more than one job.

But I digress. These nannies are at pains to stress that -
In fact, workers in the EU are free to work more than 48 hours in any given week. The 48-hour figure is an average and what is crucially important is the length of the period over which the average is calculated.
If you're a busy owner of a small business, I bet that's clear as mud so far. So read on for the explanation.
The original working time directive laid down a normal four-month period that could only be extended to 12 months by collective agreement. In the European parliament's first reading on the proposed revision of the directive we made 12-month averaging available to all without collective agreement. This means that any European worker would be able to work 60 hours a week for 24 weeks of the year as long as they averaged no more than 36 hours a week for the other 24 weeks.
So dead easy to track, monitor and police then. A doddle really, what's everyone moaning about?

The MEPs see the Working Time Directive as "a health and safety law laying down minimum rest periods". And - heroic, this - "an opt-out from a health and safety law is wrong in principle".

And they conclude that "Without an agreement, the use of terms like "flexicurity" and "reconciliation of working and family life" are meaningless as far as workers are concerned".

"Flexicurity" seems pretty meaningless anyway (my nice new built-in Firefox spellchecker will have none of it - but then it doesn't recognize "spellchecker" or even "Firefox" either).

Working life and family life may have to be balanced, but do they have to be reconciled? What does this mean, and does it require detailed government rules?

Stephen Hughes MEP is "Socialist Co-ordinator on Employment and Social Affairs". He gives no indication whether his lives are reconciled. I suppose there is no hope for that now, with the opt-out continuing.

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