'Time for sensible compromise on working time'

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date: 9 May 2005

embargo: 00:01 hours Tuesday 10 May 2005

Attention: industrial, business, Europe correspondents

The TUC has called on the government and UK employers to accept the 'sensible modern compromise' on offer this week to end the deadlock over the 48 hour week, as the full European Parliament debates revisions to the working time directive.

The UK is the only EU country that allows all workers to sign away their right to work no more than 48 hours a week on average, which the TUC has argued is regularly abused. This opt-out, originally agreed by the previous Conservative government, has been under review by the European Commission for the last year. However up to now, no agreement has been achieved with the UK government leading calls for the opt-out to remain and for existing working time rights to be weakened. Other member states, which have implemented working time rules without a universal opt-out, want to see a level playing field across Europe.

The European Parliament is debating proposals from its Social Affairs Committee that recommend:

  • the individual opt-out should be phased out over three years, as unions want.
  • but that the working week should be averaged over a year, as employers want, rather than the current 17 weeks.
  • This would still allow people to work more than 48 hours a week as long as over a year their average working week was less than 48 hours, although the committee proposes safeguards to ensure the health and safety of workers and the public are not put at risk.
  • In addition the committee proposes two further changes. First, as employers request, there should be a weakening of the rules that say that time spent on call at their employer’s premises count as work, but secondly, as unions support, employees should have a right to have requests to vary their hours considered seriously by employers.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'This issue has been deadlocked for too long. The European Parliament should accept this sensible compromise. It certainly does not go as far as we would like, but it does meet the key objection from most employers who encourage their staff to sign an opt-out.

'Employers say that they need the flexibility to be able to cope with the peaks and troughs of workload. An annual average does precisely this. If they are forcing staff to work more than 48 hours week in and week out, then there is something very wrong with that workplace and a real risk to the long term health of the workforce. That is not flexibility, but severe overwork and appalling productivity.

'But ending the opt-out, even with a year long average, would be a step forward, and strike another blow against our long hours culture.'


On Wednesday 11 May the European Parliament is set to debate and vote on a firm position on the long running review of the Working Time Directive.

In the end, the review will be settled by negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council of Employment Ministers. The Council of Ministers is likely to take a view when they meet in June.

What is on the table at the European Parliament meeting?

The EP's influential Social Affairs Committee has already passed a report drawn up by the rapporteur, Spanish MEP Alejandro Cercas Alonso. The main points are that:

  • The opt-out from the 48 hour week should end three years after the revised directive is agreed. This would be likely to mean that the UK opt-outs would end in the first half of 2009.
  • The averaging period for calculating the 48 hour maximum working week will be extended from the current 17 weeks to 52 weeks. There will be some safeguards to ensure that health and safety is not put at risk.
  • Following the SIMAP and Jaeger European Court of Justice (ECJ) cases, on-call time spent on the employer's premises has counted as working time. The Parliament intends to allow member states to weaken the rules on on-call work.
  • Workers should have the right to request a different working pattern. Employers must consider such requests seriously.

The TUC position

The TUC regards the Working Time Directive as an important health and safety measure and believes that it should be fully enforced in the UK. Our long hours culture puts health and safety at risk, puts families under intolerable pressure, stops women from getting top jobs and undermines productivity.

The deal on offer in the European Parliament is a real attempt to compromise between the wishes of business leaders and working people and their trade unions.

  • The TUC would get two things that we want - the end of the opt-out and the right to request a different working pattern.
  • Business would get two things that they want - a year-long averaging period for the 48 hour week and weaker rules on on-call work.

The TUC believes that the opt-out should end as soon as possible. The WTD is an important piece of health and safety law, which should protect people from the very real dangers of overwork. Health and safety law cannot be left to individual choice, otherwise the law is effectively repealed. The right to work long hours must be limited by the duty to work safely. For example, a long-hours driver who falls asleep at the wheel and hits an oncoming car robs the other party of their right to safety.

The TUC believes that in a modern society every worker should have the right to request a different working pattern, and his or her employer should have a duty to consider such a request in a serious way.

In contrast, extending the averaging period for the 48 hour week from 17 weeks to 52 weeks would significantly weaken the directive. Annual reference periods would exclude from the 48-hour limit 1.9 million UK workers who work more than 48 hour per week over a 17-week period but not over a full year.

The TUC does not believe that the difficulties in complying with the ECJ judgements on on-call time are insurmountable.

Position of business

Despite evidence to the contrary, business leaders have argued that workers should have the choice to work long hours and that business needs more flexibility.

It is worth noting that the House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industries March 2005 inquiry into labour market flexibility and employment regulation reported that:

'Nobody has brought to our attention examples where the 17 week reference period is inadequate. With the WTD only aiming to limit the working week to an average of 48 hours, it would seem to us that there is plenty of scope for particularly long hours to be reduced without encountering the problems that these economies are facing. Consequently we are not convinced of the necessity of maintaining the opt-out' (HoC Select Committee on Trade and Industries March 2005 inquiry into labour market flexibility and employment regulation, paras 63/64).

This finding mirrored earlier research by the DTI, which found that long hours were more habit than necessity:

'There was no sign that the extent of sustained long hours working was systematically associated with the business and financial needs of workplaces … workplaces have organisational choice and are able to reduce the need for sustained long hours should they choose to do so' ('Working Long Hours: A review of the evidence,’ J.Kodz et al, The Institute for Employment studies, DTI Employment Relations Research Series 16, November 2003).

UK Government's position

The UK government position has so far been close to the one adopted by business leaders. They have taken every possible step to defend the opt-out. However, now that there is a real chance that the opt-out will go, there are signs that ministers are preparing to shift their focus to lengthening the phase out period.

Fact file

1: Long hours are dangerous.

All the evidence available confirms that working long hours increases the risk of developing a wide range of health problems. Excessive hours also squeeze the time available for family life, which can undermine general well-being. The evidence includes reviews by the UK Health and Safety Executive (2002) and DTI (2003), plus a review by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (April 2004). The HSE concluded that long hours put both physical and mental health at risk:

'The current evidence is sufficient to raise concerns about a possible link between long hours and physical health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, especially for hours exceeding 48 to 50 a week'. 'Working long hours does seem to be associated with stress and poorer psychological health outcomes' (Working Long Hours, Health and Safety Laboratory, HSE, 2002).

2: long hours workers in the UK and EU

3.6 million UK workers regularly work more than 48 hours per week. However, their number has declined from 4.0 million in 1999 when the WTD came into force. Allowing for the size of population, the UK has 4 times more long hours workers than the average for the EU 15.

To put this into perspective, we have 2.5 times more long hours workers than Greece, which has the second highest number, and 16 times more long hours workers per head than the Netherlands, which has the lowest number.

Long hours in the UK are coming down, but the opt-out has made progress far too slow. At this rate it will take the UK 40 years to reach the EU average.

3: Most long hours workers want to reduce their working time

The opt-out stops people from being able to claim their right not to work more than 48 hours.

  • 67% of those who usually work more than 48 hours say that they want to work fewer hours.
  • 61% of long hours workers do not receive any overtime pay
  • 39% of long hours works are paid overtime. Of this group 69% say that they want to work fewer hours even if this meant less pay . (Labour force survey Autumn 2004)

4: unpaid overtime

Most long hours workers do not receive any extra pay for their efforts. Last year, UK workers put in more than £26 million worth of unpaid overtime.

Timeline for WTD review

10 - 11May - European Parliament plenary (vote on 11 May)

2- 3 June: The Employment and Social Affairs Council will attempt to reach agreement

Co-decision negotiations have not yet been scheduled. However, these are unlikely to be concluded during the UK presidency in the latter half of 2005. They are more likely to be concluded during the Austrian presidency in the first half of 2006.

Links: 'The Cercas Report’, EP paper A6-0105/2005, as well as details of the Council’s position and other background documents can be found at the European Parliament Legislative Observatory: http://www2.europarl.eu.int/oeil/file.jsp?id=5202562


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Liz Chinchen T: 020 7467 1248; M: 07778 158175; E: [email protected]

Weekend media officer : Dan Ashley 07880 504 846

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