Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Who is afraid of the Working Time Directive? - Part 1

When it comes to renegotiating the UK’s place in the EU and what Cameron wants to be repatriated in terms of powers, there’s very little to go on. So far Cameron’s statements have been about changes for the whole of the EU if possible, but specific opt-outs for the UK if not – though he has no shopping list of powers, and there are only references to "flexibility" to go by. As the UK will probably choose to opt out of the Justice and Home Affairs area of the EU (and "re-opt-in" to a few of the measures in this area), the Working Time Directive seems to be the most prominent piece of legislation that upsets the Tories, so it might be worth taking a closer look at it.

The Working Time Directive is aimed at regulating the rest periods that workers get in order to ensure health and safety at work (Article 1), and covers daily and weekly rest, annual leave and night shift organisation – you can read an overview of the Directive on Wikipedia here.  In the UK the Directive is implemented via the Working Time Regulations (SI 1998/1833). Note that there are separate rules for workers in the transport sector.

The minimum rules the Directive provides include:

- That workers are entitled to a minimum daily rest of 11 hours per 24 hour period (Article 3) – this means that there’s 11 hours where the worker is not at work, including when the worker’s asleep;
- That workers are entitled to a break where the working day is longer than 6 hours (the period is left to collective agreements or national legislation) – Article 4);
- That workers are entitled to a day off for every 7 day period, though there is a derogation to a minimum rest period of 24 hours if there are technical or work organisation conditions that require it (Article 5). The weekly day off is averaged over a fortnight (Article 16(a));
- That workers work no more than an average of 48 hours per week (Article 6) – there is an opt-out, so that employees can sign a contract opting out of the 48 hour limit (Article 22). This is averaged over 4 months or less, depending on the Member State (Article 16(b));
- That workers are entitled to paid annual leave of at least 4 weeks;
- Night workers are treated separately under the Directive, and are entitled to health assessments and 8 hour work days (Articles 8-12);
- Member States can have higher standards if they choose (Article 15), and Article 17 permits derogations for workers in certain sectors.

The UK Working Time Regulations that are based on this Directive provide for the UK that:

- There is a maximum average weekly working time of 48 hours (Regulation 4) – this can be opted out of under an employment contract (Regulation 5). The average is taken by looking at the last 17 weeks of employment;
- Workers will get the 11 hour daily rest and the weekly day off as set out in the Directive (Regulations 10 & 11), with some flexibility over how they’re used;
- Where the daily working time is more than 6 hours, they are entitled to a minimum of a 20 minute break (30 minutes for 15-18 year olds working over 4.5 hours) – Regulation 12;
- Workers are entitled to 28 days paid holiday annually (Regulation 13).

So the UK Regulations stick strictly to the maximum working time permitted by the Directive per week, and employees are able to opt out of the 48 hour average limit (though they should not suffer detriment for not opting out – Regulation 31). On annual leave, the UK Regulations are more generous, providing for 5.6 weeks holiday per year (though obviously you’ve fewer holidays if you haven’t or won’t have worked a full year). For exceptions to the rules and opting out of the 48 hour working week, see the Government’s website here.

Interestingly, if you work more than 6 hours per day, you’re only entitled to a minimum of 20 minutes break under UK law – a bit less than the traditional lunch hour!

As the law currently stands, the UK Regulations mostly stick closely to the Working Time Directive and do little to build on them. Are they really that much of a burden? How much would business really gain from reducing workers' rest breaks (since the headline 48 hour week can be opted out of anyway)? As Narmanda Thiranagama pointed out in her analysis of UKIP's current economic policy (which currently includes scrapping laws such as the WTD), SMEs have put such regulation last on their list of obstacles to growth:

"In 2012, the SME Barometer found that SMEs thought that the biggest obstacle to growth was the economy. Of the 667 directors and owners they interviewsed, 32% believed that the economy was the biggest obstacle, followed by 13% who blamed taxation. "Regulations" languishes at the bottom of the table along with "competition" at 7%."

When it comes to the UK's economic problems and the reality of regulation, it doesn't seem as if there's much that getting rid of this Directive will actually do for the British economy. And are the Tories campaigning with the message that British people don't work long enough hours? Even if they were, there is a debate to be had over longer hours versus productivity within those hours. While I hesitate to simply call a stance ideological - after all political parties are supposed to give us options from ideological viewpoints - it's hard to see where the practical impetus for policy change is coming from here, except that the WTD has become symbolic of EU regulation in the UK.

If you want to have a single market, then there will have to be some minimum social standards: EU Member States all have their own version of the welfare state, and their own idea of a work-life balance. Without some minimum standards, we would be constantly told that we our being out-competed by our neighbours and therefore have to give up the national standards and protections that people have fought for. How long would a single market survive if people were constantly told that it was the reason why they had to give up their working rights? A single market is deeper than free trade and a political project in itself; and if you want countries with welfare states to buy into it, then you will frankly have to expect common minimum social standards unless the political direction of the community changes.

The Tories in their European Conservatives and Reformists can campaign for more liberalisation and deregulation, either alone or with the Euorpean People's Party and others, but if it doesn't, then it shouldn't use renegotiation as a Trojan horse for its own ill-thought out ideological ends.

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