Above and beyond: how the UK 'gold-plates' EU rules

LONDON (Reuters) - European Union legislation is designed to govern the world’s biggest single market, spanning more than 500 million people over the bloc’s 28 member nations, and the rulebook ranges from holiday pay to the protection of natural habitats.

Campaigners seeking to get Britons to vote to leave the EU at a referendum on June 23 say EU laws stifle business and undermine national sovereignty.

Yet in some important areas of EU law, such as social and employment law, Britain has chosen to go further than the EU requires, often in response to pressure from trade unions, raising questions about how much a post-Brexit government might be able to cut back.

The practice is often referred to as “gold-plating”.

At the same time, many British companies are able to side-step one of the bloc’s most controversial pieces of legislation, the maximum 48-hour working week, thanks to an opt-out which Britain secured in negotiations with other EU countries in 1993 in order to protect flexibility in its labour market.

Below are details of some key EU rules in the area of employment, an area of legislation often cited by eurosceptics, and how they are applied in Britain.

Temporary workers - EU rules introduced in 2008 require the equal treatment of temporary staff, recruited via agencies, on issues such as pay, working hours and annual leave. Many British companies rely heavily on such staff and the government added to the EU rules when it turned them into national law in 2010. The extra benefits for workers include making sure they are not excluded from bonuses offered to full-time staff, something that does not happen in neighbouring Ireland, for example.

Maternity and parental leave - Britain offers up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, of which 39 are paid. The EU requirement is for a minimum of 14 weeks. Britain also allows more people to take time off work by giving both parents of children aged up to 18 the right to claim parental leave. EU law sets the maximum age for claiming parental leave at eight.

Retirement ages - Britain abolished its national compulsory retirement age for most professions in 2010 even though the European Court of Justice has ruled it could be justified. Employers say the government’s decision has added to costs and to paperwork because they have to produce their own retirement policy or dismiss workers on performance grounds, potentially leaving them exposed to tribunal hearings.

Job guarantees for service staff - Britain guarantees workers continuity of employment and their work rights even if the work they do has been contracted to an outsourcing firm, such as a cleaning company. Britain also has strict rules for companies seeking to change the terms and conditions of staff they inherit from a previous holder of a service contract. France has less strict rules in such areas.

Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Top News Editors