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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Q&A: Working time directive
The working time directive was highly controversial when it was introduced to the UK four years ago.

Why did the initiative attract so much attention, and why has it returned to the headlines?

What is the working time directive?

The directive is a European Union initiative designed to protect workers from exploitation by employers.

It lays down regulations on matters such as how many breaks employees can take, and how much holiday they are entitled to.

The directive's headline regulation is aimed at limiting the average working time for employees in the European Union to 48 hours a week.

Workers in a few sectors, such as some transport and healthcare workers, police officers and the self-employed, are exempted.

The regulations became law in the UK in October 1998.

So why the fuss now?

Researchers at trade union Amicus noted apparent differences between what European Commission officials had intended the directive to cover, and how it had been enshrined into law over here.

Amicus found three principal areas of concern:

  • UK employers do not force workers to take holidays and breaks they are entitled to, so that staff could still in theory work 24 hours a day 365 days a year.

  • In the UK, employees can volunteer to work more than 48 hours a week, and so can work unlimited hours.

    This "comprehensively undermines the intent of the directive", Amicus says.

  • Overtime hours for UK workers on night shifts are excluded from the overall 48-hour week count.

Two years ago Amicus officials complained to the government, which refused to review the UK's implementation of the directive.

So Amicus took its campaign to Brussels, which has ordered the UK to amend its legislation.

Sounds fair enough. What's the problem?

While trade unions have welcomed the directive's implementation, industry leaders strongly opposed it.

Executives complained that the initiative created unecessary paperwork, and added an extra cost to UK businesses, reducing their competitiveness.

The prospect of the directive being strengthened to answer the commission's concerns has prompted a new wave of condemnation from business chiefs.

The Confederation of British Industry warned that the move would limit company flexibility.

British Chambers of Commerce said the reason Britons worked long hours was because of low productivity.

"What business and trades unions should be trying to do is raise productivity, so that British workers can enjoy the same standards of living for fewer hours worked," BCC policy chief Ian Fletcher said.

So what now?

The government is believed to have two months to make changes to Brussels' satisfaction, or risk being taken to the European Court of Justice, in Luxembourg

But the threat comes at a difficult time for Tony Blair's administration, which has found relations with union leaders strained over claims it has followed a pro-business agenda.

Relations with business leaders, however, have deteriorated markedly in recent months.

The raising of national insurance contributions, as announced in the Budget two weeks ago, provoked a particularly bitter response.

See also:

29 Apr 02 | Business
Brussels warns UK over working hours
10 Apr 02 | Business
British workers 'losing out'
05 Oct 01 | Business
One-third of Britons overworked
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