EEC shorter hours proposal
Council again divides nine against one EEC shorter hours proposal vetoed by isolated Britain From Derek Brown in Luxembourg Britain yesterday marched briskly out of line with her European partners, by refuslriK to endorse an EEC initiative to alleviate unemployment through shorter working liomn. The Council of Minister divided on increasingly familiar lines: nine against one, with Britain the odd one out. Its isolation was further underlined by the French presidency's refusal to accept the British right to torpedo three years of preparatory work on the proposal. The draft which the nine other countries accepted yesterday will be forwarded to the European summit in Fontainbleau on June 25 and 26, when Mrs Thatcher will have to take responsibility in person for her apparent veto on the employment plan. The text itself is hardly radical. Without setting targets deadlines, or methods, it invites member States to include reduced' working time in their thinking on ways to deal with unemployment. Even the German Government, embroiled in a dispute with the huge metalworkers' union over their call for a 35-hour week, was able to accept the value of shorter hours as part of an employment strategy. But the British Employment Secretary, Mr Tom King, would have none of it. Competitiveness, lie insisted, had to remain the top priority. " Over a 20-year period the competitiveness of Europe in relation to the rest of the world has declined by one-third. There has been a significant fall in our share of world trade, and with that decline millions of jobs have gone," he said. " The best hope for more jobs in Europe comes from improved competitiveness. At the Mr Tom King : plan would hurt jobs moment, when Europe is facing a further decline in competitiveness in relation to the US and Japan, as ministers we have a responsibility to do -nothing to make the problem worse. " We do not see our successful competitors rushing to cut working time. My fear is that this recommendation would give the signal to create more jobs. But they would be jobs outside Europe." Mr King presented results of surveys in Britain suggesting that firms which reduced working time often had to pay for it by cutting their work forces. (The same surveys, by the Policy Studies Institute, indicated that the same firms tended to have lower overtime, better productivity, and better industrial relations). The Employment Secretary insisted that he was not opposed in principle to shorter hours. Indeed, the trend was already in that direction. But the EEC proposal was not the " correct signal " to the rest of the world, when competitiveness was under renewed threat. The EEC Commission, which" prepared the original proposals on which officials have laboured for three years, pointed out, however, that the whole idea is to encourage schemes which have no ill effect on competitiveness. The text which Britain was unable to approve stated specifically that unit labour costs should not be allowed to rise if hours were cut. The Social Affairs Commissioner, and former Labour MP, Mr Ivor Richard, has promoted the scheme heavily in recent month?, attracting on the way some heavy flak from both sides of industry: The CBI is bitterly opposed . in principle, on the same grounds as Mr King. Trade unions, too, have reacted angrily to Mr Richard's suggestion that they must not insist on wage compensation for reduced hours. "I am very disappointed." said Mr Richard yesterday. "We have worked long and hard with the active participation of all. 'the delegations, including the British, and we produced a text which i thought reproduced the points of view of everyone. " We are convinced that this is one of the ways to help reduce unemployment. So, it seems, are nine of the 10 countries." Mr King's case he said, had been based on the false premise that competitiveness could best be preserved without the sort of framework strategy proposed by the Commission. But that meant continuing with the employer-union negotiations which has produced the very 33 per cent fall in competitive ness of which he had complained. The French Communist Minister, Mr Jacques Ralite. told the ministers that unemployment in the Community was costing $200 billion in benefits alone, or 7 per cent of Community GDP.