The Working Time Directive

12th August 2016
Catherine Vickery

Most people have probably heard of the Working Time Directive, but do you know what it actually is. How did it come about and perhaps more importantly given the UK decision to leave the European Union, what happens after Brexit? Here we’ll look briefly at how it came into being, the rights it enshrined, and look into our crystal ball at what the future might hold.

The Working Time Directive – a brief history

The EU Working Time Directive can be traced back to 1993, when it was approved after EU negotiation. Though Britain voted against it at the time, the UK was defeated 11-1 in the vote. The directive duly became enshrined in UK law in in the Working Time Regulations of 1998.

The Rights included

The directive boils down to four key regulations which govern the hours that most workers can work, and included:

Limits on the average working week

The regulations state that the maximum working week should be 48 hours on average. This average the government says, should “normally” be averaged over 17 weeks.

The regulations however include a contentious opt out clause which the UK adopted. This states that workers might have to work for than the 48-hour week if they:

  • Work in a job where 24-hour staffing is required
  • Work in the police, emergency services or armed forces
  • Work in security or surveillance professions
  • Is a domestic servant in a private household?
  • Work as a seafarer, sea fisherman or work on boats on inland waterways
  • Are a managing executive and in control of the hours that they work

As well as these provisions, any worker can choose to work more than 48 hours a week, provided they are over 18 and officially “opt out” with your employer. Many employers ask their employees to opt out, but you can’t be sacked or treated unfairly if you refuse.

Limits on the normal hours of night work and regular health assessments

Night workers should not work more than an average of 8 hours in a 24-hour period. Regular overtime is included in this, and workers can’t opt out. Employers must also offer free health check assessments before employees start night work.

An entitlement to a minimum amount of paid leave

The UK mandated 28 days in paid holidays for all workers each year. This does include statutory bank holidays.

Special regulation for young workers

Young workers aged under 18 are not allowed to work more than 40 hours a week, nor more than 8 hours a day.

Brexit Implications

The Remain campaign made much of the fact that if the UK left the EU, workers’ rights under the Working Time Directive would be affected. While this might be true in theory given the whole legal framework could be renegotiated with Europe, the dismantling of UK employment law from EU employment law would be complex and time consuming.

Many commentators believe it is extremely unlikely that any government of any political persuasion would seek to significantly amend such rules which are now considered basic standards for good employee relations.

It’s also worth noting that there are areas where UK employment law actually enshrines greater rights than the EU directive. These include holidays (where the UK has 28 days versus 20 in the EU directive) and TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings) protections.

What’s almost certainly true is that nothing is likely to change in this area for a while yet!