It’s all quiet on the working time front

Although the Working Time regulations have been law for more than a year,
the HSE has received surprisingly few complaints. Helen Rowe reports

It was heralded as the beginning of the end for Britain’s long-hours
culture. But 16 months after the Working Time regulations came into force in
the UK, the Health and Safety Executive has received a mere 339 complaints
about long hours. Not one has resulted in a prosecution.

So why are so few employees coming forward to enforce their right to an
average 48-hour week?

Janet Williamson of the TUC believes it is unlikely to be because the
problem has gone away. Having introduced the legislation, she says, the
Government now needs to act to make the complaints procedure more accessible.

She describes the 300-odd complaints received so far – plus an unknown
number made to local authorities – as just the tip of the iceberg.

"I don’t think these figures even remotely reflect the scale of the
problem," she said. "But many people are not going to take that step
of writing a formal letter to a body like the HSE that they have never heard
of.

"That is not to say it is an inappropriate body but perhaps there are
some sort of bridging mechanisms that are necessary to ensure the HSE is fully
accessible and not so daunting.

"For example, the minimum wage hotline was well publicised but even
then it can be very daunting, and we do get requests to contact it on people’s
behalf."

Gruelling hours

UK staff have the dubious distinction of consistently outperforming their
European counter- parts on average working hours. Time and again, surveys show
them to have the most gruelling hours and worst conditions.

Williamson says their readiness to use the Working Time law to tackle the
problem may be influenced by the type of publicity surrounding its
introduction. "A lot of it was generated by complaints from some parts of
the business community, and that set the terms of the debate in terms of the
public.

"It is unfortunate that that line of attack was allowed to dominate the
debate.

"The European origin of the Working Time regulations did give the
business community an extra stick but the Government was committed to the
legislation and now I think it is time to get the regulations out there and make
sure people know about them.

"We would call for anything that would enable people to ensure they are
getting their rights. People need mechanisms to enforce them and the confidence
that they can take these things forward."

Of the 339 complaints received by the HSE, officers have investigated 152.
As a result, improvement notices were issued to three employers with the rest
complying before formal action was taken.

Of the three, two have now complied while the third is being allowed further
time.

No figures are available from the HSE or the DTI on the number of complaints
made through local authorities. Councils are responsible for implementing the
law for staff employed in a number of sectors including shops and hotels.

A DTI spokesman denied that more could be done to publicise the complaints
procedure. He said it is not impossible for complainants to find out how to
lodge their complaint: "It is ridiculous to suggest that anyone concerned
about working hours cannot find information.

Press coverage

"There has been vast press coverage. When the Working Time directive
came into effect we carried out a £1m national press advertising campaign which
included a telephone number.

"We have also produced one-and-a-half-million booklets and leaflets.
And there is a single number that people can use for information. The HSE alone
has taken 20,000 enquiries."

But the absence of plans for any further publicity means that a jump in the
number of wayward employers being brought to book is unlikely.

Since last November, the increase of about 100 in the number of formal
complaints lodged has hardly been dramatic. As one HR director put it:
"There is not much chance of an employer being caught unless the union
takes action against them."

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