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UK 'to retain Working Time Directive opt-out' as part of EU negotiations

Out-Law News | 10 Sep 2015 | 11:32 am | 2 min. read

Retaining the right of UK workers to opt out of a maximum 48-hour working week will be one of the government's priorities when it seeks to renegotiate the terms of the UK's membership of the EU, it has emerged.

The UK also hoped to "address problems caused by European Court judgments on on-call time, compensatory rest and holiday pay" as part of the negotiations, EU minister David Lidington said in a letter to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), a copy of which was seen by the Financial Times. Its priority in relation to the Working Time Directive (WTD) was to ensure that it continued to promote "long-term, sustainable growth and labour market flexibility", he said.

Details of the letter emerged along with new research by the TUC showing that the number of employees working more than 48 hours a week has risen by 15% to 3.4 million since 2010. The TUC called on the government to "reassess its negative view" of the WTD. According to its research, "at least a million" workers wanted to cut their excessive hours while many reported that they felt pressured to 'opt-out' as a condition of their employment.

Frances O'Grady, TUC general secretary, said that the "long hours culture" in the UK was "hitting productivity and putting workers' health at risk".

"Working more than 48 hours a week massively increases the risk of strokes, heart disease and diabetes," she said. "We need stronger rules around excessive working, not an opt-out of the Working Time Directive."

The 'opt-out', which gives individuals in the UK the right to work for more than 48 hours per week if they choose to do so and confirm this choice in writing, should be "phased out over a few years", the TUC said.

The WTD came into force in 2003 and applies to employees working across all sectors of economic activity, but does not apply to self-employed workers. Among its requirements are a 48 hour limit on average weekly working hours, including overtime; rights to daily and weekly rest breaks; the right to a rest break during working time; and paid annual leave of at least four weeks per year. It also includes extra protections for night workers.

The TUC said that those working more than 48 hours a week were still disproportionately men, but that the number of women working long hours had increased at a faster rate than the number of men since 2010. There had been a 64% increase in the number of those working long hours in the mining and quarrying industries; while opt-outs had increased by 43% across agriculture, fishing and forestry and by 36% amongst accommodation and food services workers, it said.

"There is an increasing consensus within the health and safety profession that, historically, health and welfare have very much taken a back seat to safety and issues such as stress and work life balance have long been neglected," said health and safety law expert Gareth McManus of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

"The TUC's findings provide further support to this argument. However, given the UK government's attitude to what it perceives to be unnecessary regulation on business, the prospects for strengthening the WTD do not look good," he said.