European Union: Eurovision

Last Updated: 21 March 2007
Article by David Whincup

Europe gradually becomes smokefree

France and Germany are both introducing smoking bans this year.

The German Government has however scrapped proposals to introduce a nationwide ban on smoking in public places following concerns that its plans were unconstitutional and that it did not in fact have the power to ban smoking at State level. Instead it has opted simply to ban smoking in all Federal buildings, including schools, hospitals and government offi ces. The country’s 16 States will now determine their own rules for restaurants and businesses. They are currently in the process of setting up a working group to see if they can agree a common set of rules, but no decisions will be taken until March at the earliest. The Government’s stance means that whilst Germany has one of the highest rates of tobacco use in Europe it will probably also have some of the most liberal smoking laws, at least in the short term.

France also banned smoking in public places from 1 February 2007, although cafes, nightclubs and restaurants have been given until 2008 to comply with the new legislation. France decided to introduce a ban after Government statistics showed that 60,000 deaths a year there are linked directly to tobacco consumption.

Italy and Spain have already introduced partial bans on smoking in public places and England is set to introduce a smoking ban in July 2007. The European Commission is now consulting on proposals to introduce an EU-wide ban on smoking in public places, including offi ces. The consultation period ends on 1 May.

Germany’s baby bonus

Parents of children born in Germany in 2007 will be entitled to a cash subsidy under new measures introduced in January designed to address its falling birth rate.

Germany currently has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe with an average of 1.3 children per woman: much lower than the replacement level of 2.1 births.

Under the new scheme one parent (mother or father) will be entitled to receive up to 1,800 Euros per month for a maximum period of 12 months whilst the other parent will be entitled to two months’ paid leave – an attempt to encourage fathers in particular to take parental leave. Only those parents who cease working altogether or who work less than 30 hours per week will be eligible to receive the maximum payment under the 12-month scheme. However, all parents will be entitled to at least 300 Euros per month, even if they were not working prior to the birth of their child. Single parents who have sole custody will be eligible for benefi ts for up to 14 months.

The new scheme only applies to babies born on or after 1 January 2007. This reportedly resulted in some German mothers going to extreme lengths to delay childbirth so as not to miss out on the generous cash subsidy.

A number of other Member States have also taken steps to address the problem of declining domestic birth rates. Last year France introduced measures to encourage women to have more babies, including the payment of a monthly allowance for families with three children.

German workers gear up to work for longer

The statutory retirement age in Germany is set to increase from 65 to 67 years of age.

The change will be phased in gradually: the retirement age will increase by one month per year from 2012 and by two months per year between 2024 and 2029. An exception will be made for anyone who has already made social security contributions for 45 years or more.

The German Government will also be taking measures to promote the employment of older workers. There will be wage subsidies for older workers who are prepared to accept jobs paying less than their previous employment and bonuses for employers who take on older workers for at least one year.

In light of these changes employers should review their employment contracts and any existing works agreements and collective bargaining arrangements.

UK health and safety laws given the green light ... for the time being

In October 2006 we reported that health and safety experts were keeping a close eye on the European Commission’s claim against the UK Government (Case C-127/05). The Commission claimed that because Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 only required UK employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers "so far as is reasonably practicable" the Government was in breach of its obligations under the European Directive (89/391) which appears to place an absolute obligation on employers. This is despite the fact that the UK has been one of the Member States with the lowest rate of workplace accidents.

The Advocate General recently dismissed the Commission’s claim and ordered it to pay costs. It said that the Commission’s claim was based on an incorrect interpretation of the Directive and that the general duty placed on employers did not require them to provide a totally risk-free working environment.

The Advocate General’s decision is not binding on the European Court of Justice which ultimately has to determine this issue, although hopefully the Court will adopt the same approach, not least because to adopt the strict approach argued for would simply be impossible in many cases. This matter is likely to be heard by the ECJ later this year.

Spain puts subcontractors in the spotlight

On 19 April 2007 Spain will introduce further measures aimed at reducing the number of accidents in the construction sector and at controlling subcontracting. Spain is currently responsible for 20% of all workplace accidents in the EU.

Before a company will be permitted to engage in the construction sector, either as a contractor or a subcontractor, it will have to provide guarantees of solvency and quality and to demonstrate that both senior managers have had appropriate training in the prevention of risk and that it has implemented an appropriate risk-avoidance policy. Subcontracting will also be prohibited beyond three levels.

It remains to be seen whether these additional legislative measures will have the desired effect.

Italy sets budget for 2007

The Italian Government has introduced a range of measures in its 2007 Budget Law designed to encourage employers to hire employees on "standard" permanent contracts of employment rather than atypical "work on projects" contracts. The Budget also contains measures aimed at curbing the use of illegal workers in Italy. According to Italy’s National Statistics Institute, illegal work accounts for between 15.9% and 17.6% of Gross Domestic Product.

ECJ case watch

Carers in the UK may gain protection from discrimination if Ms Coleman’s claim against her former employer is successful before the European Court of Justice. In Coleman v Attridge Law (C-303/06) Ms Coleman is seeking protection under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 even though she is not disabled. She claims that she should be protected from discrimination because she is the carer of a disabled person. She claims that she was forced to resign as a legal secretary after a series of clashes with her boss over her taking time off to care for her severely disabled son.

The Employment Tribunal has referred her claim to the ECJ for it to determine whether the Equal Treatment Framework Directive covers "associative discrimination" i.e. discrimination against a non-disabled person on grounds of their association with a disabled person. This matter is likely to be heard later this year. In the meantime we may well see other employees bringing similar complaints and asking for them to be stayed pending the outcome of the referral to the ECJ.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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