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What is the Working Time Directive that Boris and Gove are plotting to scrap?

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Our free time is under threat.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove
Chris J Ratcliffe / Stringer

Senior government ministers, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, are reportedly among a small group of hard- Brexiteers who were pushing to scrap the Working Time Regulations in today's cabinet meeting on what our future trade relationship with the EU should look like. 

Another unnamed minister has been reported as saying that scrapping the rules would mean an overtime bonanza that “will allow millions of people to earn vital overtime cash”. This is poorly-founded rhetoric with no real roots. Sadly, the reality would be very different, as scrapping the working time rules would put both our health and our free time under threat.

Are the working time rules excessive?

Here’s what the rules actually say:

  • 48-hour limit on average weekly working time. This is generally calculated over a 17-week average, but a 26-week average is used for some sectors, including hospitals. Unions can negotiate the average period up to 52 weeks if workers want it.
  • 48-hour average limit on nightwork. In the case of dangerous work, the limit is understandably tighter, applying to a single week without averaging.
  • Right to annual free health check for night-workers
  • One day off a week, or two days off a fortnight
  • 11 hours rest between working days
  • 20 minutes break if the working day is longer than six hours
  • 4 weeks paid annual leave (Britain has gone further by raising the entitlement to 5.6 weeks, but uniquely in Europe, we have no separate right to time off for paid bank holidays).

Most people take the view that these rights need strengthening rather than weakening. There is often employer pressure to sign an opt-out from the 48-hour limit; holiday entitlements are only enforceable by taking a case to employment tribunal and nobody can say that having 11 hours rest in a 24-hour day is mollycoddling employees.

Why do we need working time rules?

Without legal limits on working time, some employees would literally be worked to death. There is robust evidence, including a study by the independent Health and Safety Executive that regularly working excessive hours increases the risk of developing depression, type 2 diabetes, stress related illness and particularly heart disease.

Long hours also threaten safe working. Excessive working time has been a factor in every major British transport disaster in the last 50 years, and the signs on the motorway that say “fatigue kills” are well founded. Nobody wants to see an HGV driver who is nearly asleep through fatigue coming at them down the other lane, for example.

In addition, regular long hours squeeze out time for hobbies, family and friends. We need to reflect on whether we are working to live, or as the cabinet minority seem to want, merely living to work.

Working longer hours would certainly not help the UKs competitive position. Actually, the reverse is rather more likely. If we fill out offices and factories with exhausted workers, then both common sense and one hundred years of work study literature tell us that both quality and output will suffer. We need a smarter economy, and that cannot be achieved by making workers groggy through lack of rest.

Have the working time rules benefited British workers?

Many workers say that they want to cut their hours. Before the working time rules were introduced in 1999, four million workers regularly put in more than 48 hours a week. That figure has now fallen to 3.3 million, despite a significant increase in the working population.

Six million workers gained more days of paid leave when the Working Time Regulations were introduced. Two million employees who previously had no paid leave at all, mostly women working part-time.

The holiday pay rules are the at the heart of the challenges that unions are making to the rip-off gig economy, with those on zero-hours contracts, agency workers and even those labelled by employers as self-employed, securing the right to paid holidays for the first time.

Will the government hold the line against the nose-to-the-grindstone tendency?

The cabinet ministers who are gunning for the Working Time Regulations appear to be driven by ideology rather than analysis. The government needs to take a step back and think about the needs of working people. They should be trying to do something to help zero hours workers and stamping out bogus self-employment in the gig economy, not tilting at an illusory “red-tape” windmill. Bearing in mind that most overtime hours are unpaid time worked by salaries employees, they risk squeezing our free-time and damaging our health with little or no prospect of anything in return.

The Prime Minister has taken pains to stress that Brexit will not end up damaging workers’ rights. To do otherwise would be a big political pitfall that could well be the defining moment in this parliament. The government would no longer be able to say that it represents the interests of working people at heart. Rather, to scrap the working time rules would be a very damaging U-turn that would needlessly make many jobs worse. I call on the PM to hold the line, block the small nose-to-the-grindstone tendency in her cabinet and support our right not to be victims of a return to Burnout-Britain

You can help

Tell the PM she needs to face down Boris and Gove's plot to scrap the Working Time Directive. Add your name to our petition now

Hard Brexit ministers plan to force the PM to scrap the Working Time Directive. Hands off our holidays!
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