Working time moves to the top of the agenda

Working time has moved to the top of the industrial relations agenda in the UK. As well as the failure of the UK Government's attempt to have the EU Directive on working time annulled by theEuropean Court of Justice, there has been a growing debate concerning the implications of long hours on the well-being of workers and their families. This feature argues that of all the EU member states the Directive is likely to have the greatest impact in the UK due to the historical legacy of "non-regulation" of working time, and the fact that the Government has removed the limited protective legislation on women and children's working hours.

The immediate catalyst for the current prominence of working time in UK industrial relations is the failure in November 1996 of the Government's attempt to have the EU Directive on certain aspects of the organisation of working time (Council Directive 93/104/EC of 23 November 1993) annulled by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Steps are being taken to implement the Directive, though the present Conservative Government hopes to get the Directive "disapplied" if it wins the forthcoming general election. Also important, however, is the growing debate about the implications for the well-being of individuals and their families of the fact that UK's hours of work are long in comparison with other EU member states.

Of all the 15 EU member countries covered, it is in the UK that the Directive is likely to have the greatest impact. Historically, working time has not generally been regulated by the law in the UK. Moreover, legislation protecting the working hours of women and young workers, together with the statutory regulation of wages council, has been dismantled in line with the Government's policy of deregulating the labour market. The system of sectoral regulation by collective agreement has also declined over past years: large numbers of companies have withdrawn from their employers' organisations, while sectoral agreements are no longer negotiated in numerous sectors (such as engineering). By contrast, legislation on maximum weekly working hours and minimum annual paid holidays has long been the norm in most other EU countries, and the system of regulation by sectoral collective agreement, although under pressure in some countries, remains widely in force. Whereas the Directive's practical significance is therefore likely to be relatively limited in other EU countries, in the UK it will mean a completely new statutory framework.

The impact of the Directive

In the UK debate, most attention has focused on the Directive's maximum working week of 48 hours: estimates suggest that around 3.5 million employees work longer hours in their main job. Annual holidays is where the directive may have the most immediate impact, however. As many as three million full-time employees enjoy less than the Directive's four weeks' paid annual holiday standard and an additional 2.4 million part-time employees probably enjoy less than the pro rata equivalent. Many workers on night shifts - perhaps as many as 3.5 million - work more than the Directive's eight-hour limit. Three-quarters of a million employees also work seven days a week, while the Directive prescribes a weekly rest period.

Additionally, the Directive's key general principles have to be taken into account. These include "due regard for the general principles of the health and safety of workers"; the need for employees to be afforded "equivalent periods of compensatory rest" or "appropriate protection" where such rest is not possible; and the requirement that, in planning the organisation of work, employers must take account of "the general principle of adapting work to the worker...". These are relatively novel concepts in the UK.

In its consultation paper on implementing the Directive, theDepartment of Trade and Industry (DTI) gives estimates ("indicative and, to some extent speculative") of the direct costs to UK employers of complying with the Directive. These come to around GBP 1.8 billion, rising to GBP 2.3 billion if minimum paid leave increases from 15 to 20 days. This estimate, the DTI adds, does not take into account the effects on the flexibility of working.

There is also speculation about the impact of the Directive on industrial relations institutions. An increased level of negotiation and consultation over working time is to be expected. However, if the UK Government takes advantage of Article 18, allowing the working of more than 48 hours week subject to the agreement of individual employees, this may dilute the importance of collective agreements in securing flexibility under Article 6 (which provides for bargaining over weekly hours). Also at issue is the interpretation to be put on the phrase "agreements between the two sides of industry", which is used frequently in the Directive. The DTI's suggestion that this might be interpreted to include agreements between employers and individual employees is likely to be very controversial. It is nonetheless a further recognition of the significance of the so-called representation "gap" in UK industrial relations.

The Directive may also stimulate the reform of working time. The provisions encouraging the averaging of working time over periods longer than a week, together with those dealing with compensatory rest, are likely to emphasise the working year as opposed to the working week. It could be that the attractions of annualised hours arrangements, increasingly adopted by larger employers such as Unilever and ICI/Zeneca, but currently thought to affect less than 10% of UK employees, will grow.

Wider concern on working hours

In parallel with the controversy over the implementation of the working time Directive, a debate has been taking place about the significance of the UK's working hours, which are exceptionally long in comparative terms. A clutch of reports from a wide range of organisations including the Institute of Management, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has identified long hours not only as a key factor in workplace stress - accounting for considerable time off work - but also a major source of disruption to family life. Especially controversial has been the publicity given in a BBC television programme to research suggesting a link between the working hours of mothers and the educational performance of their children.


So why are working hours so long in the UK? The most plausible explanation, given some support by the Donovan Commission on trade unions and employers' organisations and the National Board for Prices and Incomes nearly three decades ago, is that they are rooted in the pay structure. Basic pay rates, especially of manual employees, tend to be relatively low in the UK, encouraging resort to overtime working to achieve a reasonable weekly wage. Once overtime is worked regularly and consistently, rather than exceptionally, it becomes a habit very difficult to break. Employees are resistant to change for fear of losing earnings, and management has little incentive to innovate if long hours of relatively cheap labour are so available. Significantly, as well as the reorganisation of working hours, a major feature of annualised hours arrangements has been the maintenance of previous earnings, usually in the form of an annual salary, with associated benefits in terms of sick pay and pensions.


  1. "Time for change? Coming to terms with the EU working time directive", Mark Hall and Keith Sisson, Industrial Relations Services/Industrial Relations Research Unit (1997).
  2. "Pushed to the limit: The case for the European Working Time Directive", Trades Union Congress (1996).
  3. "Parenting in the 1990s", Elsa Ferri and Kate Smith, Joseph Rowntree Foundation/Family Policy Studies Centre (1996)
  4. "Survival of the fittest: a survey of managers' experience of, and attitudes to, work in the post-recession economy" (1995) and "Are managers under stress?" (1996), Institute of Management
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