The EU Working Time Directive requires member states to ensure that national rules make it unlawful for an employer to require workers to work more than an average of 48 hours a week. The Working Time Regulations 1998 implement the Directive in the UK. However, the UK Government negotiated an opt-out from the 48-hour weekly working limit where an individual employee gives his or her prior agreement to waive this right.
In December 2008, the European Parliament voted in favour of scrapping the UK’s opt-out. A revised Working Time Directive will impose a 48-hour maximum working week, calculated over a reference period of 12 months. If the Directive is adopted, the Government will have three years to implement it. In addition, the Parliament approved a proposal for all hours when an employee is ‘on-call’ to count as working time, in a majority of cases. This decision was condemned by UK business leaders. The Deputy Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, John Cridland, called the vote “misguided. Trying to ban people from choosing to work more that 48 hours a week is a mistake, and would replace opportunity with obstruction.” However, Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), welcomed the vote. In his view, “members of the European Parliament have courageously defied the abusers and the slave-drivers over the loss of the ‘right’ to work people till they drop.” There is still a way to go, however, before the revised Directive is adopted. Member states have until May to agree a deal with the European Parliament through the Council of EU Ministers. If no agreement is reached, the opt-out will remain in place.
The TUC has estimated that in 2008, 5.24 million people worked overtime without any extra pay. Whilst critical of the UK’s long-hours culture, the TUC recognises that the recession is making people frightened of losing their jobs and it is inevitable that many of them will be putting in extra hours if they believe it will help protect them from being made redundant or keep their employer in business. The laws on working time across the European Union are intended to guarantee better protection of the health and safety of workers. The issues of competitiveness and cost must therefore be weighed against achieving a sensible work-life balance so that employers and employees can have the flexibility over working hours that they seek.
Employers are advised to consider the likely health and safety implications for their employees of continually working long hours. Not only are tired employees more vulnerable to accidents but also an employer who fails to take remedial action when an employee has made them aware that he or she is suffering from stress as a result of overwork can be found liable for a breach of the duty of care owed to the employee.
Pinder Reaux & Associates