From the TUC

48 hour week key vote soon

04 Nov 2008, by in Working Life

I was saddened to read the FT story that shows that the Government still does not quite “get” the case for the Working Time Directive.

The Employment Committee of the European Parliament is meeting today to discuss a report that includes the end of the so-called individual opt-outs from the 48 hour limit on average weekly working time. If the EP supports this view, and the TUC hopes that they will do, then we can expect votes in the European Parliament in December and a process of consultation between the EP and the Social affairs Council of Ministers in late January 2009.

The UK Government has tried to portray the opt-outs as being about the right to work. In my view this position ignores the facts, which are that:

  • excessive working time is a serious risk to health in all occupations, and also a risk to safety in some occupations;
  • most long hours workers want to reduce their working time;
  • most long hours are not paid for their overtime hours; and
  • many workers say that they were put under pressure to sign away their rights by their employers.

The TUC’s case is very strong. The Working Time Directive was introduced to protect workers from the health and safety hazards of excessive working time. Sadly, the opt-out has effectively neutered the directive in the UK, leaving us with 3.3 million employees (12.9%) regularly working more than 48 hours [1]. A further sign that the directive is not currently working as it should do is the fact that the number of long hours workers increased by 150,000 last year. As a result, excessive working time remains a serious problem, with far too many UK workers still falling prey to heart disease, stress related illness and unnecessary accidents [2]. It is therefore vital that the 48 hour limit is fully applied as quickly as possible.

It will certainly not be enough just to add more legal conditions to the use of the opt-out because the UK’s enforcement regime is very weak. Workers seeking to enforce their rights must make a complaint to one of a number of government agencies, depending on which industry they work in. However, the government has told these agencies that working time complaints must be a low priority and that there must be no proactive enforcement. In some cases, local enforcement agencies do not even know that they are responsible for enforcing the regulations, whilst the main Health and Safety Executive has been reported to turn down working time complaints unless workers have been injured or killed [3]. Since the Government agencies are the only way to enforce the 48 hour week, the net result is that workers often cannot enforce their rights even when their case is supported by a trade union.

It is also the case those most long hours workers want to reduce their hours [4]. Indeed, most of those who work excessive hours do not get paid for their extra time and so have nothing to lose from a more robust limit on working time. There is also a body of evidence that shows that many employers put pressure on their workers to sign the opt-out [5].


[1] Source: UK National Statistics Labour Force Survey Microdata Service, spring 2008.

[2] Anybody who may still doubt that working time is a serious health and safety issue should read ECJ judgment ICR 443, (1997) in which an attack on the basis of the directive by the Conservative UK government of the day was solidly deferred. Since then the evidence in favour of the directive has continued to pile up. See, for example, the following English language reports: ‘Overtime and Extended Shifts: Recent Findings on Illnesses, Injuries and Health Behaviours’ US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, April 2004.; ‘Working time: Its impact on safety and health’, Anne Spurgeon, International Labour Organisation, 2003; ‘Working Long Hours’, Health and Safety Laboratory, HSE, 2002

[3] See, for example ‘The use and necessity of Article 18.1(b)(i) of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom’ by Catherine Barnard, Simon Deakin and Richard Hobbs, EC, 2003, pp.55 & 56.

[4] Source: UK Labour Force Survey

[5] Abuse is documented in official studies as well the evidence provided by trade unions. Cases of abuse are reported in Barnard, Deakin and Hobbs, Ibid; Neathy F and Arrowsmith J, ‘Implementation of the Working Time Regulations’, Employment Research Series 11, DTI 2001; and Neathy, ERRS 19, ‘Implementation of the Working Time Regulations: follow up study’, DTI, 2003. The incidence of abuse is measured in a UK Government sponsored study carried out by BRMB Social Research, ‘A survey of workers’ experiences of the Working Time Regulations’, DTI Employment Relations Research Series No.31, November 2004, pps 25-29. The latter report found that just 28 per cent of UK long hours workers (eg those working more than 48 hours per week) know that there is a 48-hour limit; 23 per-cent of long hours workers who have not signed an opt-out say that they have experienced employer pressure to work long hours; and 50% of issues raised about the 48 hour week by workers are not resolved

One Response to 48 hour week key vote soon

  1. Owen Tudor

    Nov 5th 2008, 9:55 pm

    The European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee, however, DOES get the need for restrictions on working time, and voted today to scrap the opt-out (see which is good news.

    Some of the tired old arguments were trotted out in response, about scrapping the opt out being a restriction on workers’ freedom, or damaging to the UK’s job creation record, or undermining the efforts of hard working people to earn enough to look after their families. All of which miss the point.

    It’s important to remember that the 48 hour limit isn’t a limit on ever working over 48 hours in a single week – it’s an average. You have to work very long hours (ten hours a day over a five day week) for a very long time (four months is the standard reference period) before you are protected by this measure.

    The 48 hour limit was chosen because above 48 hours (over a long period of time), the health impacts kick in seriously. That was the issue that the last Tory Government challenged the original Working Time Directive on – they said it wasn’t a health and safety measure, and the European Court, along with their own scientific advisor, found that it most certainly WAS. There is no other workplace health and safety laws where it is possible to opt out – count them, none. Would it make sense in any other area? A speed limit that you could opt out of to provide freedom to get places faster? A chemical exposure limit where you could opt out if you particularly enjoyed the smell of toxic gases?

    Are the opponents of scrapping the opt out REALLY concerned about the poor, hard-working people who can’t afford to feed, clothe or heat their families without working beyond 48 hours a week? Strangely, it was the same Tories who opposed the minimum wage when it was originally introduced who also opposed the working time directive. So they wanted people to work long hours for low wages – so caring! Many people who are forced to work over 48 hours a week get no extra pay for it at all – they’re not working long hours for more money, they’re working long hours for their bosses convenience. The solution to low pay is higher pay, not longer hours.

    What about the argument that, as Peter Mandelson has put it, the opt out “is essential to Britain’s labour market flexibility that has helped to create an extra three million jobs over the past decade.” Note that he is not ACTUALLY claiming that the opt out has helped create three million jobs, because it certainly hasn’t. In reality, the opt out encourages a long hours culture which goes hand in hand with reduced productivity-per-hour (as people get more and more tired) and therefore has probably held the British economy back. Employers faced with having to reduce working time in Ireland, for example, improved productivity, making Ireland wealthier and its people happier.

    The arguments for keeping the opt out are laughable.

    Except that it’s no laughing matter for people who are being forced to work long hours without the protection of the law or adequate enforcement, and in fear that if they don’t do what their boss tells them to, they will get the sack.

    So well done the MEPs who voted FOR people at work, FOR health and safety, FOR work-life balance, and AGAINST the opt-out.