EU court’s common sense decision on time spent travelling to work
The European Court ruling this week was indeed a good decision for people working long hours, a phenomenon that TUC research shows is on the rise again in Britain. But many of those commuters happily seeing the headlines saying “EU court rules travelling to work ‘is work'” could be in for a disappointment.
The Court was hearing a case from Spain – although the British government shoved its legal oar in, never wanting to miss an opportunity to defend exploitation at work. Workers without a fixed or permanent workplace, in this case installing security devices on other employers’ premises, wanted the long hours they spend travelling to their first job of the day, or back home at night, counted as working time. The Court agreed with them, which is just common sense.
Workers with a fixed workplace who are told one day to travel three hours to somewhere different for a training course would normally have that extra travel counted as working time. Their normal commute is different: that’s about where they decide to live, after all.
But for the workers the European Court was dealing with, their employers have saved money on a fixed workplace so that their home is where their working day starts and ends. No one would quibble about whether the journeys they take between jobs were working time (well, as many home care workers have discovered, actually some employers would, in yet another attempt to create a loophole that forces down costs, but that’s widely accepted to be deeply dodgy and when it’s challenged employers often give in), so why should the travel to and from the first and last jobs be any different?
One of the reasons employer representatives, lawyers and newspaper headline writers have so misread the judgment as to suggest it applies to everyone’s travel to work may be that they haven’t read or understood the judgment. But there’s a more sinister alternative explanation. Some politicians will use this misreading of the judgment – which is just a common sense application of the law – to bolster the employer and right-wing attack on the Working Time Directive underway as part of David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU. This week Europe Minister David Lidington revealed in a letter to the TUC that the Directive is very much in the Government’s sights.
We will be told that the judgment will massively increase the costs of employment, endangering business survival and jobs, whether simply because working weeks have to be reduced as travelling to work has to be factored in, or because, as unions like Unison have correctly argued, for low paid care workers, these journeys to and from the first and last job of the day should be paid. The rights workers have gained from the Working Time Directive – like paid holidays, rest breaks and work-life balance – have simply transferred money from the pockets of employers into the wage packets of low-paid workers, without costing the British economy anything (indeed there’s an argument that by transferring money from rich employers to poorer workers, the economy benefits.)
But the Tories will use the more apocalyptic statements of some to argue yet again for the Working Time Directive to be scrapped or watered down in the run up to the EU referendum, leading unions like the GMB to warn again that taking workers’ rights away will only make it less likely that working people will vote to remain in the EU. As the union’s Europe Officer Kathleen Walker-Shaw commented:
“It is not only workers without fixed and habitual places of work who will benefit from this judgment today but all workers in Britain and the EU. They need to ask themselves – are we prepared to see David Cameron and his Conservative Government rob us of these vital protections as he has given notice to the TUC this week he is hell-bent on doing? This judgment is only safe as long as David Cameron is stopped.”