The 40-hour working week finally in force in Portugal

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The 40-hour statutory working week finally came into force in Portugal on 1 December 1997. This feature discusses the implementation phase, over the first year of the 40-hour week law. The simultaneous introduction of a reduction in working time and new forms of flexibility have led to conflict in a number of sectors.

Although some headway has been made through collective bargaining, controversial issues in Portugal - such as the length of the working week - continue to be decided by law. Working time is currently governed by the "40-hour Law" (Law No. 21/96, dated 23 July 1996). The second phase of application of this legislation came into effect on 1 December 1997, as stipulated by the law itself. The law stated that in December 1996 weekly hours should be shortened by two hours towards the limit of 40 hours, and that no enterprise could exceed the 40-hour limit - without loss of pay for workers - by December 1997.

Interpretation of the law

The two principal trade union confederations have stated that hundreds of thousands of workers - perhaps up to a million - have reaped benefits during this first year of application of the new law. The Secretary of State for Labour also believes that the law is being widely applied - to an even greater extent than other labour laws. However, December 1997 had for some time been viewed as a landmark date because of several issues that had come to the fore regarding the way in which the law was to be put into practice. Putting the law into practice has not been a peaceful process, due to the various interpretations of the law itself.

The law had been approved in Parliament as part of the tripartite "short-term agreement" of 1996. Immediately doubts arose that were to lead to a number of expert opinions on the interpretation to be given to the terms "actual working hours" (trabalho efectivo) and "normal working time" (período normal de trabalho), or time of employment in the enterprise (PT9703110N). A dispute arose regarding breaks, which are not considered as part of actual working time. The central discussion is over the fact that short breaks have not been counted as part of normal working time. Another issue focuses on meal breaks for shiftworkers, for whom some breaks are covered and others not.

The transposition of the 1993 European Community Directive on working time currently being debated in Parliament includes an interpretation of the term "break". The results of this interpretation may help to overcome these difficulties of definition.

Positions adopted by social partners

The General Workers' Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT) has called attention to those cases in which the law has not been enforced and has requested intervention by the General Labour Inspection (Inspecção Geral do Trabalho). It has also underlined the need to clear up doubts, imprecision and incorrect interpretations that have led to dispute. These doubts are currently being cleared up. The UGT has also been working toward its next objective: a further reduction to the 35-hour working week.

The General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP), in an overall interpretation of the term "working time", has stated that nearly 300,000 employees are being short-changed because the working week is not being reduced according to the spirit of the law. This union confederation has filed a complaint with the ombudsman and has headed several protest initiatives, mainly in areas of the country where certain sectors predominate - such as Braga and Oporto. The protests have in some cases included a "directed application strike", in other words, one in which workers strike directly against what they consider to be excess working time. Some shiftworkers in the textile industry have been striking on every Saturday throughout 1997. They have also been holding demonstrations and press campaigns since the beginning of the year. They have stated that growth must also be reflected in better conditions for workers.

The CGTP rejects the interpretation of the meaning of the term "breaks" that the transposition of the Directive will introduce into Portuguese legislation. The Directive does not deal with Saturday working, nor does it safeguard or guarantee rights regarding breaks acquired in previous agreements which are more beneficial than those set down in the law. The law that transposes the Directive safeguards only those breaks and stoppages that are beyond the worker's control, that is, those that come about as a result of health and safety conditions, cleaning up or lack of materials.

The employers' interpretation of how to calculate time is different. In the employers' view of shiftwork, for example, there are periods such as lunch breaks that should not be counted as working time. The hotel industry claims that there will be a 2.8% cost increase and that hiring more employees and extra hours will jeopardise the industry's competitiveness.


Debate in the national media over the application of the law has been considerable. However, it has been centred around generic issues and ways to apply - or not to apply - the law and the concept of a "break." A skirmish of interpretations has substituted for reasonable discussion, which, in turn, has blurred the complex nature of the reduction of working time.

In Portugal, the model of working time organisation and limitation has been until recently highly regulated and undiversified, with legislation being the only tool to define issues. The legislation dealt primarily with the duration of working time and one of its most important related aspects, namely, the reduction of the hourly working week. In 1990, the tripartite Economic and Social Agreement stipulated that a reduction in working hours should be negotiated. It stated that agreements should, as a rule, be more beneficial than the law. Analyses have proved that sectoral collective bargaining introduced some innovation into reducing working hours as far as flexibility and limiting working hours were concerned, but that the greatest changes have taken place at the enterprise level. (Maria Luisa Cristóvam, UAL)

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