As a matter of principle, all citizens of the European Union should be entitled to a work-free Sunday, a group of more than 70 organisations including churches, trade unions and civil organisations is urging EU authorities.
The call was made ahead of a meeting at the European Parliament for the first European Conference on a Work-Free Sunday, according to a statement issued by the Conference of European Churches.
Members of the Conference of European Churches include about 120 Orthodox Christian, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic Churches from all countries of Europe, plus 40 associated organisations.
"The protection of a work-free Sunday is of paramount importance for workers’ health, for the reconciliation of work and family life as well as for the life of civil society as a whole," according to a statement
addressed to EU heads of state and government, the European Parliament, European Commission and "all European citizens".
"This common weekly day of rest serves to strengthen social cohesion in our societies, a cohesion so severely undermined by the current economic crisis," the statement said.
Rüdiger Noll, Director of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches, told the March 24 2010 conference: "More than any other day of the week, a free Sunday offers the opportunity to be with one’s family and friends.
"Common free time is an important precondition for a participatory society, which allows its members to engage in civil activities," Noll said.
The statement qualified its call by saying, "of course, this does not exclude exceptions necessary for the provision of essential services, nor does it prejudice the important role of social partners in the negotiation of collective agreements".
EU heads of state and government, who are to meet for their spring summit, were urged to "firmly resist the growing economic pressure to liberalise the laws providing for a work-free Sunday and to commit themselves to safeguard and promote a work-free Sunday as a pillar of the European Social Model within the laws of their respective nations".
The statement concluded "we call upon all European citizens to sign a future Citizens’ Initiative to be expressed in favour of the protection of a work-free Sunday".
Separately, the European Commission said on March 24 that it had requested the views of workers' and employers' representatives on the options for reviewing EU rules on working time.
"The first stage consultation asks the European social partners at whether action is needed at EU level on the Working Time Directive and what scope it should take," the European Commission said.
This represents the first step towards a comprehensive review of the directive and comes after previous attempts to revisit the existing legislation reached an impasse in April 2009.
László Andor, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion said: "The failure to reach an agreement on revising the working time legislation last year does not mean the problems around the existing rules have gone away.
"We still need to find a balanced solution that addresses the real needs of workers, businesses and consumers in the 21st century," he said.
"We need a comprehensive review of the rules based on a thorough impact assessment with a strong social dimension. Today we invite the social partners to reflect broadly on this crucial issue and to come forward with innovative proposals that move beyond unsuccessful debates of the past," Andor said.
In 2004, the European Commission put forward a proposal to amend the directive, following wide consultations.
The proposal aimed to tackle a series of problems left unsolved by the existing legislation and case law of the European Court of Justice, namely to clarify the Directive's application to on-call time in certain sectors of work; to give more flexibility in calculating weekly working time; and to review the individual opt-out from the 48-hour limit.
However, in April 2009, government representatives and the European Parliament concluded they could not reach agreement on the proposal, despite lengthy negotiations.
In the meantime, other issues have been added to the debate, reflecting fundamental changes in the world of work over the past 20 years.
For example, average weekly working hours in the EU have fallen from 39 hours in 1990 to 37.8 hours in 2006 and the share of part-time workers in the workforce increased from 14 per cent in 1992 to 18.8 per cent in 2009.
"There is also more and more variation in individuals' working time over the year and over working life, reflecting more emphasis on work-life balance measures such as flexitime and time credit systems, as well as increasing workers' autonomy in parallel with the expansion of the knowledge-based economy," the European Commission said.
As a result, the Commission said, it is planning a comprehensive review of the existing working time rules, starting with a thorough evaluation of the current provisions and issues in their application, before considering the different options to address these issues.
"The review will be shaped by a set of policy objectives, including protecting workers' health and safety, improving balance between work and private life, giving businesses and workers flexibility without adding unnecessary administrative burdens for enterprises, especially SMEs."
The first stage consultation of social partners is an important first step towards such a comprehensive review of the Working Time Directive.
The social partners have six weeks to make their views known to the Commission, the EC said.
In parallel to the consultations, the European Commission will carry out an extensive impact assessment, including an examination of the legal application of the directive in the member states and a study of the social and economic aspects that are pertinent to a comprehensive review of the directive, the Commission said.