Brexit arguments on working time just don’t add up
The main workplace rights being targeted by Brexit supporters at next month’s referendum are around working time (although protection against discrimination, fairness for agency workers and health and safety are also in the frame). But do their sums really add up?
Leave campaigners claim that the Working Time Directive and associated European Court of Justice judgments are a colossal burden on British business and the NHS. They cite the Directive as a key element in their claim that EU regulations cost Britain as much as £600m a week. Some Leavers would like to scrap the whole directive – paid holidays and all – whereas more moderate voices ‘only’ want to scrap limits on the working week, or rights to overtime and bonus payments, or the classification of on-call time or travel between jobs as being at work.
The EU fact-checking website InFacts recently examined Michael Gove’s £600m a week claim, and found one of the key sources to be an Open Europe report which suggested that the Working Time Directive and associated judgments costs the UK £4.2bn a year – although the Government’s own impact assessment predicted the cost of the EU’s working time rules at around “£2.6 bn per annum based on 2002 prices”, or £3.5 billion at 2014 prices.
Open Europe had added costs related to extending the Directive to cover offshore oil and gas workers, and a European court judgement that time on-call counts as working hours, which particularly affects NHS workers. InFacts noted that even that judgment would only cost between £380 million and £780 million a year (to quote then Health Secretary John Hutton) if the only measure used to implement the judgment was recruit extra staff. In fact, many employers in the social care sector have changed duty rosters to abolish or massively reduce on-call working, and NHS hospitals have also changed shift patterns to reduce the number of Doctors who are almost dead on their feet from long hours – and quite unfit to practice medicine.
We would point out that, in reality, the costs of the Working Time Directive to business are mostly about paid holidays, which our research shows applied to 2 million workers for the first time ever when the Directive was implemented in the UK (5 million more got an increase in their paid holidays.) Leavers often claim that they have no plans to scrap those rights to holiday pay, but without those costs, their sums just don’t add up.
And, of course, those are costs to British employers, not to Britain. In truth, paid holiday rights just transfer money from business to workers (especially the low-paid) – so they are redistribution, not a cost to the UK. That demonstrates, yet again, that the Leave campaign is acting in the interests not of the British people, but the bosses bankrolling the Brexiteers.