Government seeks advice on working time Directive

After losing its case in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over the EU working time Directive last year, the UK's Conservative Government has been seeking advice through the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) on how best to transpose the Directive into UK legislation. Amid rumours that the Government was considering sanctions against those companies which did not comply with the Directive (something not specified by the Directive), the DTI has sought the opinion of the business community.

In November 1996, the UK Government failed in its attempt to have the 1993 Directive on certain aspects of the organisation of working time (93/104/EC) - which lays down specific requirements concerning weekly hours, holidays, shifts and other patterns of work - annulled by the ECJ. The DTI launched consultations with business organisations on implementation of the Directive in December 1996, and the process was completed in March 1997. The DTI is now analysing the responses, but is unlikely to produce the results until some time after the 1 May general election.

According to the Government, the Directive's implementation will lead to job losses and a reduction in competitiveness: however, the Government is now reported to be proposing to impose sanctions against employers which breach the Directive. According to The Times newspaper, representatives from the Engineering Employers' Federation (EEF) expressed their surprise that, having opposed the Directive so strongly, the Government was now proposing to enforce it in ways in which the Directive itself did not require. The EEF felt that it was unfair to grant compensation to employees for infringement of rights, and urged the Government to apply the terms of the Directive as flexibly as possible.

DTI officials suggest that in the main, employers will find little difficulty in implementing the key provisions of the Directive. It suggests that 2.72 million employees in the UK usually work more than 48 hour a week (although others have suggested that the figure could be much higher), and according to the Government, few of those workers want to work fewer hours than they do presently. The DTI suggests that the Directive may directly affect around a quarter of UK employees, at a cost of between GBP 1.8 billion and GBP 2.3 billion. This would be mainly due to further rest periods and increases in minimum holiday entitlements.

The Chemical Industries Association (CIA), which represents chemical companies in the UK, has also said that it thinks that the Directive would have little direct impact on most companies. It told the DTI that the Directive was "open to many opportunities for flexible interpretation". The Association said that the Directive would be flexible enough for employers to make agreements with employees which could reduce the impact of the legislation on employers and employees: "It will enable them to come to mutually agreed sensible arrangements on how best to organise the working day". This is all the more surprising as, like the Government, the CIA was one of the fiercest critics of the Directive.

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