TUC says UK does not need opt-out from Working Time Directive

The UK does not need an opt-out from the Working Time Directive (WTD) as long working hours are in decline, the TUC said today.

As European ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the future of the UK’s opt-out from the WTD’s 48-hour limit on the working week, the union body has published a new analysis of official figures showing the UK does not need an opt-out.

Long hours working is on the decline across the economy and most of those who still work more than 48 hours a week would be exempt from the limit because of the jobs they do, the study said.

The TUC’s analysis of the government’s Labour Force Survey shows:

  • The number of UK employees working more than 48 hours has declined by 17.5% since the 1998 peak of four million

  • The incidence of long hours workers has declined in every industry, occupation and region, although the pattern of improvement is very uneven, with some sectors doing much better than others

  • Because of the growth of some jobs and industries there are more long hours workers in some of them, but even here the proportion doing long hours has fallen

  • Starting from a higher baseline, the decline of long working hours has been much sharper in the private sector.

Ending the opt-out will have little economic impact, not just because fewer people now work very long hours, but also because:

  • A third of UK employees who work more than 48 hours per week are only working one or two extra hours per week

  • Up to one million UK employees would continue to be exempt from the 48-hour limit. These are mostly “autonomous workers” – largely senior managers and professionals who genuinely control their own hours

  • If the opt-out ends then it is certain the deal reached by EU ministers will include increasing the period for averaging the 48-hour limit from 17 weeks to 52 weeks. This would exclude about 1.5 million UK long hours workers from the coverage of the 48-hour week, since they do not sustain their excessive working time over the full year.

The TUC claims this means only 800,000 to one million UK employees would have to make a serious change to their working patterns if the opt-out ends, but many of these work excessively long hours with at least 130,000 regularly putting in more than 60 hours a week. It would therefore make a significant difference to the group that needs it the most.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Ministers tell us that keeping the opt-out is essential to the UK’s economic success, but these figures hole that argument below the waterline.

“The truth is that long hours working is already in decline – not fast enough for sure – but is still a marked trend, particularly in the private sector.

“What it will do is give important protection to the fewer than a million hard core of long hours workers who need working time rights for their health and well-being, but at little or no cost to the wider economy.”

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