A reference period is a period of time, set by legislation or by agreement, over which weekly working time can be averaged. The aim of this is to provide a greater degree of flexibility in the organisation of working time, allowing workers to vary weekly working time, as long as average working time over the set reference period does not exceed the set limit.
Reference periods are cited by the working time directive as a way of introducing more flexibility into the organisation of working time. Under the directive, a reference period of not more than four months may be used to average out weekly working time of up to 48 hours a week, which can be extended to six months by derogation for certain types of worker, listed under Article 17.3 of the directive. Further, the directive gives Member States the option of allowing, for objective or technical reasons, or reasons concerning the organisation of work, collective agreements or agreements concluded between the two sides of industry to set reference periods of up to 12 months.
Reference periods can also be used to average out rest periods; the working time directive allows for a reference period of up to 14 days for the application of weekly rest periods.
In 2004, the European Commission issued a proposal to amend the directive in relation to key issues, including the reference period. Agreement had been reached, allowing Member States to extend the reference period for calculating the average working week to up to 12 months, provided that both sides of industry were consulted. However, as no agreement could be reached on other issues, in April 2009, it was reported that no agreement could be reached on this proposal and it therefore failed.
In March 2010, the Commission began again by issuing a first-stage consultation document to the EU-level social partners, asking them for their views on a review of the Directive. One of the issues on which it wishes to focus, is flexibility in averaging out weekly working time using reference periods.