While the media have been focusing on proposals for the national minimum wage and trade union recognition, a raft of European Union directives have entered the pipeline which, taken together, could mean significant changes for employers in the hospitality industry.
One of the potential changes causing most concern is that casual staff would enjoy rights and benefits similar to those of full-time employees. Industry leaders are hoping to persuade the Government that casuals should be excluded from the impact of the EU's Part Time Work Directive.
The directive is one of several which are being implemented in the UK under Labour, and is one result of the Government's decision to sign up to the EU's Social Chapter. Other measures to be extended to the UK include parental leave and the reversal of the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases. The Government is also implementing the Working Time Directive (see panel).
Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, says that his main concerns are the part-timers' directive, the possible introduction of compulsory employee consultation, and the extension of rights for people on fixed-term contracts. "The problem with the Part Time Work Directive," he says, "is that the wording is unclear and so we're not sure if casual workers will be included." He adds that there would be consultation in the UK on this and other aspects of the directive before it became law.
The directive is likely to have a much bigger impact in the UK than in mainland Europe because of the higher proportion of part-timers in the British hospitality industry, says David Wood, chairman of the HCIMA. He adds that there could be administrative problems in providing equal treatment for part-timers. For example, if they were entitled to the same training on a pro-rata basis, it might not be easy to find time slots when they were in work and the training was available.
Charles Boyd, managing director of London contract caterer Chester Boyd, says he is concerned about increased bureaucracy under the directive. "We have 250 staff," he says, "of which just over half are part-time or casual, and all on different hours, so it would be a nightmare calculating hours and entitlements."
According to Rev Geoffrey Gleed, personnel manager at the Blunsdon House Hotel outside Swindon, it would be highly problematic to include casual staff. "You could have a casual doing banqueting and working maybe 40 hours a year," he says, "so what sort of holiday entitlement would they get? Two hours?"
Proposals on compulsory consultation with works councils and rights for fixed-term workers are at a much earlier stage than the Part Time Work Directive, but are still of concern, says Couchman. "The European Commission wants formalised bargaining in every business of less than 50 workers, and there is the question of whether fixed-term workers should enjoy the same rights as full-time staff," he says. "Extending rights for fixed-term staff would probably have a big impact on smaller businesses."
Operators believe that consultation should be part of best practice in the industry, but that it should be encouraged rather than imposed. "We already have to consult a lot, anyway," says Boyd. "It just sounds like it would mean more bureaucracy for the employer."
Some employers, however, say they would not be concerned by the plan to extend works councils. Blunsdon House Hotel has a good relationship with its 230 staff, although there is no trade union or formalised consultation. "We have a culture of open communication with employees," says Gleed.
As for the Working Time Directive, the Government's consultation period ended at the beginning of June. Hospitality industry leaders are hoping that implementation in the UK will be flexible and that the full list of exemptions, known as derogations, is taken up.
The directive's measures include limiting the working week to an average 48 hours over a 17-week period, as well as the provision of compulsory rest periods and breaks between shifts. Privately, industry leaders believe that the directive will be difficult to enforce. They also point to evidence from Germany which suggests that the directive will not have much of an impact, because most people who work more than 48 hours will opt out of the requirements because cutting their hours would also mean cutting their pay.
Left in the lurch
The Parental Leave Directive will allow all parents to take three months' unpaid leave. This is not regarded as a significant potential problem for employers provided that promises are kept, says Catriona Butcher, managing director of London caterer Tastes, which has eight staff. "Unpaid paternity leave is not a problem as long as people come back when they say they are going to," she says, "because otherwise you're left in the lurch."
Many in the industry believe there will be limited compliance with some of the above legislation, particularly the Working Time Directive. "The directive may be OK for tightly regulated sectors like manufacturing, but in catering it will be broken left, right and centre, both here and on the Continent," says Boyd.
In general, he argues that the playing field is uneven. "In the UK and Germany," he says, "directives are usually complied with, but not in France and southern Europe, which gives them an unfair advantage."
Wood favours a voluntary approach. He says: "Better education of employers in good practice would achieve more than a host of directives."