ETUC: Background information to the working time directive
A longstanding trade union demand
Setting a limit of the number of hours workers can be forced to work is one of the oldest and most fundamental trade union demands, dating back to the struggles of the 1880s and earlier. In 1919, the very first international convention on working conditions established the eight-hour working day and the 48-hour week. The European Union has acknowledged these principles since its foundation. The European Social Charter, dating back to 1961, commits member states to ensure “reasonable daily and weekly working hours”, and to a progressive reduction in the length of the working week, while the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (2000) declares that “every worker has the right to limitation of maximum working hours”.
The 1993 Working Time Directive (93/104/EC) was a major step forward, setting a 48-hour maximum working week and laying down the framework for rest and leave periods.
It aims to ensure that working time is organised in a way that safeguards workers’ health and safety. Research has established a clear link between long hours, inducing work-related fatigue, and the increased risk of industrial accidents due to loss of concentration.
The Directive binds all existing 15 and incoming 10 member states of the EU. The ETUC regards this legislation not only as a basic cornerstone of workers’ well being, but also as an indispensable feature of the social dimension of the internal market, especially in light of enlargement.
Its main provisions cover:
Maximum weekly working time of 48 hours on average, including overtime
At least four weeks’ paid annual leave
A minimum rest period of 11 hours in each 24, and one day in each week
A rest break if the working day is longer than six hours
A maximum of eight hours’ night work, on average, in each 24.
Scope: the Directive excluded workers in air, road and rail transport, fishing and activities at sea, and doctors in training. It allowed for the average working week to be calculated over a longer ‘reference period’ of up to four months, or up to 12 months by collective agreement, and gave member states some leeway to define terms such as ‘rest period’ and ‘night work’ through national legislation, which had to be in place by November 1996.
The 2000 Amendment: Directive 2000/34/EC
The amendment extended the law to cover non-mobile workers in areas that were previously excluded. In addition, agreements in sectors such as maritime (1998) and civil aviation (2000) subsequently became law, while a new Directive in 2002 gave protection to mobile workers in the road transport industry. Member states had until August 2003 to apply the amendment, or August 2004 in the case of trainee doctors.
The opt-out (Article 18)
The 1993 Directive contains an opt-out clause, largely at the demand of the UK government, which enables employers to get round the maximum 48-hour working week under certain conditions:
Workers must sign individual opt-out agreements, and must not suffer any penalty if they refuse to do so;
Employers must keep records of staff who work more than 48 hours a week, and make them available to the appropriate authorities.
Working time in the UK
The UK is the only EU member state where weekly working time has increased over the last decade. Full-time workers put in some 44 hours a week on average, compared with around 40 in other c countries of the EU-15. About 16% of the labour force - 4 million people - work more than 48 hours a week, compared with 15% in the early 1990s. Two-thirds of British workers are unaware of the 48-hour limit, and one-third of those who have signed opt outs say they were given no choice. And yet, surveys suggest that only around a half of those covered by opt-outs actually work more than 48 hours a week. In short, British employers seem to be using the opt-out as a lazy catch-all to avoid modernising work organisation and thereby - far from making business more competitive - contributing to low productivity and poor management.
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