Working Time Directive: second EU consultation later this year

A second consultation on the EU Working Time Directive (WTD) will take place in the autumn, the European Commission (EC) confirmed this week.

Attempts to revise the legislation failed last year and in March the Commission began a major review of the Directive by consulting workers’ and employers’ representatives at European level on whether or not changes should be made.

According to the EC, the present situation on the WTD is “clearly unsatisfactory”. The Commission says that 10% of all employees in the EU work more than 48 hours a week on average, and about 7% of all employees work in multiple jobs. Announcing the original consultation, the EC said: “We need to ensure that workers’ health and safety is being effectively protected in line with EU law, and that sufficient flexibility is afforded to businesses and workers in the organisation of working time.”

The Commission would not reveal the outcome of the first consultation. but confirmed it was pressing ahead with a second stage consultation of social partners including Business Europe (the CBI equivalent across Europe) and the trade union umbrella body ETUC, suggesting that proposals for change will be debated.

What is the Working Time Directive?

  • The Working Time Directive is part of the EU’s health and safety laws intended to protect workers.
  • It limits the average working week to 48 hours.
  • An employee can work longer average hours if they agree to – the so-called “opt-out”.
  • It also lays down minimum daily and weekly rest periods to avoid overwork.
  • Following several European Court of Justice judgments, the Directive also applies to “on-call” time.

Source: European Commission.

David Yeandle, head of employment policy at manufacturers’ body the EEF, and a veteran of many Brussels’ working time debates, told Personnel Today there was likely to be pressure from MEPs to phase out the opt-out – currently in place in the UK – which allows employees to voluntarily work more than 48 hours a week.

“However, recent discussions I have had with ministers, including [business secretary] Vince Cable, on the issue have shown they are as determined as previous ministers to retain the individual opt-out and protect the flexibility of the UK labour market,” he said.

Darren Newman, consultant editor at XpertHR, said: “The last proposal (which ended in no agreement) limited the opt-out in that it prevented employers using it until after an employee’s probationary period so that ‘vulnerable’ employees couldn’t be cajoled into agreeing excessive hours. It was also subject to a cap of 60 hours per week from which no opt-out was possible.

“It remains to be seen what the Commission proposes, what the European Council then agrees to, and what then happens to the Directive in the European Parliament. We are at the start of a pretty long and laborious process here and it’s too early to say whether or to what extent the opt-out is under threat.”

Newman also urged HR professionals to keep a close eye on the passage of the Directive. “Employers can be very quick to complain about the regulations when they are eventually adopted and call for a ‘lighter touch’. But it is too late by then because the Directive is already set in stone and the UK has to comply with it,” he said.

Yeandle added the second stage consultation would be “testing the temperature of the water” between the employers’ and workers’ representatives. A negotiated deal on working time is unlikely, he added “If they decide not to negotiate, I think it is likely there will be a further consultation document issued in spring next year which will set out a legislative proposal.”

XpertHR FAQs on working time

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