Working time Directive implemented in the UK

From October 1998, the EU working time Directive applies to workers in the UK. However, some question the effectiveness of the measures and indeed whether UK workers want protection from long hours

From 1 October 1998, the UK is covered, for the first time, by a set of general statutory rules for the regulation of working time - the Working Time Regulations 1998 (UK9810154F). The Regulations represent mainly the UK's implementation of the 1993 EU Directive on certain aspects of the organisation of working time (93/104/EC). Among other issues, the new Regulations thus stipulate the following rights:

  • a limit of an average of 48 hours in a week in which a worker can be required to work;
  • three weeks annual paid leave, rising to four weeks in 1999;
  • 11 consecutive hours' rest in any 24 hour period;
  • a limit of an average of eight hours' work in 24 hours for night workers; and
  • one day's rest per week.

Some commentators are beginning to question the effectiveness of the regulations in the light of the current exemptions in the Directive for certain occupations and sectors (eg junior doctors and transport workers - EU9707138N) and the right for individuals to "opt out" of the regulations on maximum working hours.

The UK is well known for its long working hours. According to a survey by the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), the professional institute for personnel managers, published in October 1998, UK employees work long hours willingly. Nearly three-quarters of employees surveyed stated that they actually enjoyed working long hours, while relatively few said that they worked long hours because of the fear of being sacked or made redundant. Most respondents said that they worked long hours because of heavy workloads and not wanting to let colleagues or clients down. Interestingly, over half said that they would put a work commitment before a social commitment and a quarter said that they were more committed to work than their private life. According to the IPD, many of those working long hours are unlikely to make use of the Directive's provisions: "Many long-hours workers are so committed to their work that they will probable sign away their right to work fewer hours."

Regardless of the IPD's picture, Manufacturing Science Finance (MSF), a trade union which represents skilled and professional workers, still feels that there are too many unscrupulous employers which will flout the Directive. This position is lent support by an Economic and Social Research Council household survey - entitled Work now; pay later- which paints a grim picture of British work habits, claiming that working long hours may be bad for people's health - particularly women - bad for family life and bad for their children's educational performance. The survey findings, published in October 1998, highlight the fact that very few employers or employees know much about rights at work, and the subsequent dangers to health and family life of working long hours under increasingly stressful conditions.

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