Working hours practices vary

EU member nations are trying to unify recruitment, working hours and
employment practices. But as Bo Kremer-Jones reports thereare still many
exceptions to the rule

Member nations of the EU have been working towards the creation of uniform
employment practices and rules ever since it was first established. Although
there are now many similarities between the way companies in this region
recruit, compensate and operate, there is still a long way to go before
employment regulations across the region are completely uniform.

One major distinction is the regulated number of hours worked by employees
per week. Across the EU, this can vary from 35 to 48 hours, although the
average for most countries is 40 hours.

Probably one of the most conspicuous and well publicised alterations to
European employment law in recent times is the decision taken in France
obliging firms with more than 20 employees to reduce their employees’ working
week to 35 hours, as of 1 January 2000. For companies with less than 20
employees, this rule will come into effect from 1 January 2002.

However, the UK has moved in the opposite direction, allowing for an extension
of the working week. Shona Newman of law firm, Baker & McKenzie explains,
"In the UK, many companies work on the basis of their employees working
more than 48 hours per week." She continues, "Employees themselves
are often willing to work the extra hours because of the considerable overtime
they can earn. However, she adds, "When it became effective on 1 October
1998, Regulation 4 (1) of the Working Time Regulations imposed a maximum limit
of 48 hours per week, averaged over a 17-week period. Under Regulation 5,
employees can opt out of the limitation provided they do so in writing."

The average working week in Ireland is lengthy too, according to lawyers at
Clifford Chance, "Under the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997, the
maximum average working week is 48 hours, subject to a phase-in period."
But they add, "Hours may be averaged over a period of two, four, six or
6-12 months, depending on the circumstances." And they add, "The Act
also requires employers to provide rest breaks to employees. They have an
entitlement to a 15-minute rest break where up to 4.5 hours have been worked
and 30 minutes where up to six hours have been worked."

There have also been discussions about the number of working hours in the
Netherlands, where last year time flexibility legislation was introduced,
giving employees the right to request an extension or a shortening of their
working hours. This may sound as if the employees are in control, but as Baker
& McKenzie point out, "The employer may reject an application for
adjustment of the working hours if the desired spread of the hours is not
‘reasonable and fair’ or if the adjustment is contrary to ‘weighty business or
employment interests’ – serious problems reassigning newly available hours,
safety issues or problems scheduling activities, for example."

And in Spain, debate over a 35-hour week, similar to that in France, has
been opened, although as yet no formal decision has been made. Aside from the average
working week, there have been other amendments to the country’s employment law.

Angela Toro of Baker & McKenzie in Spain notes, "The newest changes
are restrictions on the types of temporary employment contracts to encourage
companies to hire their employees with indefinite relationships.

"Consequently, in the case of dismissal, unless it is based on one of
the legal possibilities and can be clearly proven, the employee will be
entitled to a severance package of between 20 and 45 days’ salary per year of

Greek employers are less generous than their Spanish counterparts,
particularly where blue-collar workers are concerned. As Clifford Chance’s
report, Employment and Benefits in the European Union states, an employee
having worked up to one year with an organisation whose contract is terminated
has the right to severance pay of just five days’ wages. Up to two years of
employment and this figure increases to seven days, up to three years and the
terminated employee will receive 15 days’ wages and so up a scale that ends
with a maximum of 125 days’ wages for those having given 25 years of service
and above.

In other parts of Europe, outside the EU, working conditions are just as
varied. In particular, the average working week again differs greatly from
nation to nation. And often, what is laid down by law is only a guideline and
the reality can be very different.

In Albania for example, The Federation of European Employers (FedEE) notes,
"The legal maximum working week is 48 hours," although, it points
out, "In practice hours are typically set by individual or collective
agreement." And it adds, "Many people work six days a week."

In Belarus, the opposite can be true. The Constitution and Labour Code has
agreed a limit of 40 hours of work per week with a rest period of 24 hours. But
as Hans Jabs, a recruitment consultant working in Belarus notes, "Given
the country’s struggling economic situation, many workers find they are working
less than 40 hours per week. Often their employer will also require them to
take unpaid breaks while either waiting for raw materials or as the demand for
their output dwindles."

But as Jabs adds, "There is a minimum wage set in Belarus of 44-66
euros per month, again, this is seldom adhered to in reality. Difficult working
conditions and struggling firms make it extremely hard for workers to earn a
decent living. Too often workers are forced to wait for late payment of their
salaries, because employers simply cannot afford to pay them. It is not unusual
for major wage arrears to grow," he adds.

Like other areas of employment law, although the law "Establishes
minimum conditions for workplace safety and worker health," says FedEE,
"these standards are often ignored. Workers at many heavy machinery plants
do not wear even minimal safety gear, such as gloves, hard hats, or welding
glasses," it reports.

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