November 22, 2007 2:00 am
Employers could be forced to give tens of thousands of temporary workers more rights after Britain yesterday appeared outmanoeuvred in the latest round of a long-running political scrap in Brussels over European Union labour laws.
The Portuguese presidency of the EU proposed a deal that would force the UK to compromise on its opposition to giving temporary and agency workers full employment rights after about six weeks, EU officials said. Under the deal, discussed at a meeting of top EU diplomats, the UK would secure its prized exemption to EU legislation that limits the maximum working week.
The government is adamantly opposed to any such deal, backing employers' concerns that the temporary workers measure would damage the UK's flexible labour market. "Our position hasn't changed . . . we don't think the temporary workers measures as it stands strikes the right balance," the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said.
But the UK does not have a veto. Instead the government will be forced to rely on assembling a blocking minority when Portugal puts the plan to EU employment ministers in Brussels next month. The continued support of Poland and Germany will be crucial to Britain. But a Polish spokeswoman said Warsaw was looking at the Portuguese proposal, and wanted to reach an agreement on both directives.
Poland's apparent ambivalence suggests Britain may struggle to gain the support it needs elsewhere. The Portuguese hope that by linking the twin controversial issues of temporary employee rights and rules on maximum working hours, it may finally secure a deal on both after years of deadlock.
"People do not understand why Gordon Brown is not saying yes to this offer because he is getting everything he wanted on the British opt-out [to the maximum 48-hour work week]. The UK is isolated," an EU official said.
Any suggestion that Britain could be defeated on temporary workers will alarm employers. David Yeandle of the EEF, the manufacturers' body, warned: "Anything less than six months [as a qualifying period before temporary employees get full rights] would be a serious problem and ideally we want it to be at least 12 months."
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