Overtime in Europe

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Date of Publication: 30 June 2003

Jacques Freyssinet, François Michon

Overtime remains a significant issue in working time across Europe, regarded by many employers as a vital element in achieving flexibility and by many employees as an important source of income. However, the regulation and use of overtime is changing rapidly in a large number of countries, under pressure from new, more sophisticated forms of working time flexibility, from EU legislation and policy and from trade union and (sometimes) government concerns to reduce working time. In this comparative study, we examine: the regulation of overtime through legislation and collective agreements; the level of overtime working; and the positions, strategies and debates of the industrial relations actors.

This comparative study - based on the contributions of the European Industrial Relations Observatory (EIRO) national centres in the EU Member States, three candidate countries for EU membership and Norway - examines the changing regulation and use of overtime working. As a general working definition, overtime hours are those worked above a certain threshold of working time, which attract enhanced compensation for the worker, either in the form of an increased rate of pay or time off in lieu. In Europe, within national regulations on the issue, this general definition of overtime is expressed in a variety of ways and with many exceptions. The starting point for distinguishing sets of national rules from each other is the type of threshold used (daily, weekly etc), either in legislative or collectively agreed terms, and its relationship to actual working time.

Overtime regimes are now changing rapidly. They are an essential instrument for obtaining the flexibility actively sought by businesses, a trend to which no country is immune. They are also, though less frequently, a central element of flexible systems aiming to reconcile the restrictions of work more effectively with a higher quality of life. Moreover, overtime systems have often been changed in recent years due to reforms undertaken by EU Member States and the candidate countries in order to comply with the EU Directives on working time and part-time work (see the box below). A final force for change, and a significant one in those countries that have opted for this direction, is the forms of working time reduction adopted by some Member States as part of their employment policies, which have had a radical impact on overtime regimes. In all cases, overtime schemes comprise a key element in the working time strategies of the industrial relations actors and in many disputes over this issue.

This study examines:

  • the current position with regard to legislation and collectively agreed provisions on overtime;
  • the (limited) statistical information available on the level of overtime working; and
  • the overtime-related strategies and stances of the industrial relations actors - employers, employers' organisations, employees, trade unions and governments - and the debates among them on the issue.

Current legislation and collectively agreed provisions

In terms of both the procedures for regulating working time and overtime, and the basic rules in this area, two typical situations can be identified among the countries considered (as in many other areas). The first is characterised by regulations initiated by collective bargaining, and the other by regulations formulated in legislation. In the former case, basic national rules are hard to describe as they are often marked by a great deal of sectoral and local diversity. In the latter case, despite exceptions, the degree of national homogeneity is greater. However, throughout Europe it can be seen that, though using different regulatory procedures - mainly dictated by the basic distinguishing features of national industrial relations systems - the same economic and social objectives are being sought, ie worker protection coupled with productive flexibility. The basic rules set by the two models are not so different, and one might almost identify in them a 'European model' for the regulation of working time.

To take account of these basic similarities, the vocabulary used in national regulations must be put to one side. What are termed in a number of countries 'maximum hours', after which hours termed 'overtime' begin, are elsewhere referred to as 'standard hours'. In both cases, this level of working hours in reality acts as the working time norm. A second maximum level relates to the ceiling on working hours that cannot be exceeded by overtime. In some countries, this ceiling can also be exceeded through an exemption from the regulations.

It is therefore vital to use a stringent comparative vocabulary, which differs from that adopted in particular national regulations. For the purposes of this study, the following terms are used:

  • overtime hours are those that attract enhanced compensation for the worker, in the form of either an increased rate of pay or compensatory time off. Overtime is thus considered here as work beyond the point at which the higher rate of payment or compensatory time off begins, even though collective agreements may set a different normal working time, whether longer or shorter depending on the national system in question;
  • 'extra time' are those hours worked beyond the usual working time - most often set by collective agreements - but below the threshold at which enhanced compensation commences. No increased rate of pay or compensatory time off is granted;
  • extended hours are those worked in excess of usual working time - extra time and/or overtime included - but are neither counted as hours worked nor paid; and
  • all of the above three categories comprise what will be referred to as additional hours
The EU Directives on working time and part-time work

Two EU Directives are of direct significance to the regulation of overtime - the 1993 Directive (93/104/EC) on certain aspects of the organisation of working time and the 1997 Directive on part-time work(97/81/EC) (EU9706131F)

The working time Directive provides that the period of weekly working time in Member States must be limited by means of laws, regulations or administrative provisions or by collective agreements or 'agreements between the two sides of industry'. The average working time for each seven-day period, including overtime, must not exceed 48 hours, over a reference period not exceeding four months. Furthermore, all workers are entitled to: a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours per 24-hour period; in each seven-day period, a minimum uninterrupted rest period of 24 hours plus the 11 hours' daily rest referred to in the previous point, over a reference period not exceeding 14 days (this rest period should in principle include Sunday, but if objective, technical or work organisation conditions so justify, a minimum rest period of 24 hours may be applied); and where the working day is longer than six hours, a rest break. The normal hours of work for night workers must not exceed an average of eight hours in any 24-hour period.

The part-time work Directive defines a 'part-time worker' as an employee whose normal hours of work, calculated on a weekly basis or on average over a period of employment of up to one year, are less than the normal hours of work of a comparable full-time worker. In respect of employment conditions, part-time workers must not be treated in a less favourable manner than comparable full-time workers solely because they work part time unless different treatment is justified on objective grounds. Where appropriate, the principle of 'pro rata temporis' shall apply.

The roles of legislation and bargaining

The field of working time - like many other areas of employment conditions, but perhaps more than most - has traditionally been marked by a clear distinction between national systems in which legislation takes an active role and those in which the initiative is left to collective bargaining. However, in both types of system, general trends have meant that the social partners have acquired more and more independence, and that the level at which such autonomous bargaining takes place has become more decentralised. Working time is an essential dimension of company organisation and it appears to be a generally accepted principle that this must be regulated at the point closest to the workplace and its particular constraints. However, the national methods of regulating these expanding margins for negotiation differ greatly, and in a good many countries the social partners do not enjoy a high degree of independence of action.

The working time regimes of the three EU candidate countries covered in this study (Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) are in a transitional phase and are a special case. Collective bargaining is still weak in these countries (TN0207104F), and almost all the regulatory norms fall within the field of jurisdiction of the legislator. Legislation is now striving to introduce the main provisions of the EU Directives in this area, particularly those relating to maximum working time. In Hungary, probably the most advanced candidate country in terms of the collectively agreed regulation of working time, in the area of overtime such regulation currently serves only to allow premium rates of pay for overtime to be converted into time off in lieu, and to extend the reference periods used in variable or annualised working time systems beyond the typical provisions laid down by legislation.

It is very difficult to identify a single typical situation in the Member States. However, to the extent that there is a widely-shared framework for the regulation of working time schemes, this involves the legislator setting the rules for maximum working time, on the basis of which negotiators agree actual working time schemes. Usually, legislation sets, de facto, two thresholds. The first, variously referred to as the 'norm' or 'maximum', is a threshold marking the point at which overtime begins, with the legislator setting the minimum premium pay rate or time off in lieu that must compensate the hours worked beyond this threshold. The second sets a maximum of allowable overtime or a maximum daily or weekly limit for working hours that cannot be exceeded. Within this regulatory framework, negotiators decide on the actual working time scheme, and which rules on extra pay or time off in lieu should apply. In some cases, negotiators also have the authority to move the thresholds. (It should of course be noted that collective bargaining coverage rates vary considerably between countries, and that in a country such as the UK for many workers overtime and other working time matters are, within the statutory framework, largely left to individual bargaining or unilateral employer initiative.)

In terms of the regulatory framework for overtime, three characteristic situations may be identified in the current EU Member States and Norway, as follows.

  • In many Scandinavian and southern European countries, plus Austria and to some extent the Netherlands, the 'norm' for working time is set by legislator, which leaves it to negotiation to decide on the actual hours worked, usually below this norm. The statutory norm (often called the maximum working time), is thus a threshold marking the point at which extra pay or time off for overtime begins. Additional hours worked in excess of the negotiated hours but below the statutory threshold are not classed as overtime in regulatory terms (and are paid as ordinary hours, as in Austria, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden). The legislator also sets the ceiling for the overall number of hours worked, including overtime. Naturally, these general principles are applied in a variety of ways, depending on: whether the negotiators establish rules that are very close to or far from the statutory ones; the degree of decentralisation of bargaining in national industrial relations systems; and the rights to derogate from the statutory rules granted by legislator. It should be noted that collective bargaining can lower the thresholds at which overtime begins (as in Finland) or raise them (as in Italy), and even increase the maximum permissible number of hours of overtime set by legislator (in Italy, Norway and Sweden) or lower the statutory maximum working time (outside of any existing system for planned variation, as in the Netherlands). In other cases, it is the legislator that offers the option of exemption from the regulations, for example on the basis of permission granted by the authorities (as in Greece).
  • In countries such as Germany and Denmark, the working time norm and the overtime scheme falls within the remit of collective bargaining. The legislator restricts itself to setting an upper limit on working time (or a maximum level of overtime, which comes to the same thing). Overtime begins beyond the threshold constituted by the negotiated norm. If there is no bargaining, the concept of overtime is therefore absent.
  • The UK is in a third situation unique to itself. The regulatory framework differs little from that described above, but there are three essential differences. The favoured level of bargaining on working time (as on other issues) is now the company, or even the workplace, rather than the occupation or sector. It is only recently (1998 - UK9810154F), with the application of the EU working time Directive, that the legislator has introduced a maximum weekly working time (and in effect a daily working time, by defining a maximum period of 'night work'). Lastly, overtime is hardly limited by bargaining, even at the local level.

France and the Netherlands are two very specific cases. However, recent developments have meant that they are now less unusual.

  • France is usually described as the 'prototype' for state intervention, a view challenged within France itself (see below). However, nowadays the idea that the legislator decides everything in terms of employment conditions is far from accurate. In the field of working time especially, the state actively encourages collective bargaining. It has built a very precise framework of restrictions to the field of, and the conditions for, its own intervention in such matters. Lastly, it largely reproduces the results of previous bargaining in its statutory provisions.
  • The Dutch method of regulation is unusual. The state determines what are normal hours. Deviations can be negotiated, within certain limits, in collective and company bargaining. On top of this, in very special circumstances, these limits can be stretched even further, again through negotiations and within limits. Additional compensation for deviations from the norm is provided only by collective bargaining.

Standard working time and overtime

Table 1 summarises the main rules of the standard overtime schemes, set by legislation or collective agreements, in the countries concerned. Of course, when these rules result from bargaining, it is possible in only a few cases to reduce the diversity of the provisions in a particular country to a common principle. Moreover, standard working time schedules often incorporate flexibility measures, with maxima and thresholds defined as averages over a given reference period. However, this is usually linked to specific provisions on planned variation or annualisation of working hours (see below).

Table 1. Principal features of overtime schemes
Country Maximum working time (1) (minimum daily rest period, where no maximum daily hours) Threshold marking beginning of overtime (2) Specific maximum overtime limits Conditions for use of overtime (procedures, justifications) Enhanced pay rate and/or time off in lieu
Method of setting threshold Threshold level
Austria 10 hours per day, 50 hours per week (maximum under certain conditions). Legislation. 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week, which is above average collectively agreed working time. 5 hours per week, and additional 60 hours per year. No conditions. 50% pay rate or 50% time off in lieu
Belgium 8 hours per day, 38 hours per week. Legislation and agreements (at sector or company level). 8 hours per day, 38 hours per week. None. May only be used on specific grounds - exceptional peaks of work, force majeure, unforeseeable needs. Authorisation procedures vary according to reason. 50% pay rate ( 100% at weekends and public holidays) - may be converted into time off in lieu if provided for by collective agreement.
Denmark 48 hours per week (minimum daily rest period of 11 hours). Agreements (at sector or company level). 37 hours per week (industry sector agreement). 12 hours over 4 weeks (industry sector agreement). Notice period required (industry sector agreement). Companies with agreement - increased pay rate, then time off in lieu for overtime hours over a threshold (8 hours in 4 weeks in industry sector agreement). Companies without agreement - mostly time off in lieu.
Finland 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week. Legislation or agreement. 40 hours or collectively agreed working time. 138 hours over a 4-month period, 250 hours per year over statutory threshold of 40 hours, raised by 80 hours per year if the 138 hours over a 4-month period is complied with. Individual agreement of the employee required for work over 40 hours per week. 50% pay rate for the first 2 hours per day, 100% above that. May be converted into time off in lieu by agreement.
France 10 hours per day, 48 hours per week. Legislation. 35 hours per week. 180 hours per year or set by collective agreement. No conditions. Permission from authorities required for exceeding annual limits. Between 35th and 43rd weekly hour - minimum pay rate of 10% ( 25% without agreement) or time off in lieu by agreement. From 44th hour - 50% pay rate.
Germany 8 hours per day, 48 hours per week. Agreements (at sector level). Varies between sectoral agreements. Varies between sectoral agreements. Agreement of works council required, except where sectoral agreement includes specific provision. Increased pay rate and/or time off in lieu, by collective agreement.
Greece 9 hours per day, 43 hours per week (assuming five-day week). Legislation. 40 hours. 3 hours per day over 43 hours (in case of emergency, no limits on the first day, and 4 hours on the next 4 days). Annual limits, varying by sector and region set every six months by Ministry of Labour. Over 43 hours per week requires justification, notification of authorities and record-keeping. From the 40th to the 43rd weekly hour - 50% pay rate. From 44th hour - 150% pay rate.
Hungary 12 hours per day, 48 hours per week. Legislation. 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week. 200 hours per year, may be raised to 300 hours by agreement. Reasons required, notice to be given, record-keeping compulsory. 50% pay rare (or time off in lieu by agreement), 100% pay rate for work on a holiday (or 50% if time off in lieu granted.)
Ireland 48 hours per week (minimum daily rest period of 11 hours). Agreements. Varies between (mainly company) agreements (average 39 hours). 2 hours per day, 12 hours per week, 240 hours per year, or 36 hours over 4 consecutive week. Limits can be exceeded with permission from the authorities. No conditions. 25% pay rate (agreements often lay down higher rates).
Italy 48 hours per week (minimum daily rest period of 11 hours). Legislation and agreements (at sector level). 40 hours per week. 250 hours per year (may be lower by agreement). Collective agreement required (sector or company-level). 10% rate (in absence of agreement on higher rate).
Luxem- bourg 10 hours per day, 48 hours per week. Legislation. 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week. None, but overall statutory daily and weekly working time limits (see first column). Permitted only on specific grounds (eg exceptional cases), permission from the authorities required. 25% pay rate for blue-collar workers, 50% for white-collar worker. May be converted into time off in lieu at 50% for all workers.
Nether- lands 12 hours per day (11 hours if no agreement), 60 hours per week (54 with no agreement), 624 hours per 13-week period. (585 without agreement). Legislation and agreements. Varies between collective agreements (no fixed level). None, but overall statutory daily, weekly and quarterly working time limits (including 'incidental hours'), which may be extended within limits by agreement (see first column). Must be 'incidental' and not 'structural'. Collective agreements often require agreement of works council and/or employees concerned. Increased pay rate and/or time off in lieu, by collective agreement.
Norway 9 hours per day, 48 hours per week. Legislation. 9 hours per day, 40 hours per week, which is above average collectively agreed working time (37.5 hours). 200 hours per year (overtime between 200-400 hours per year allowed by individual agreement). Permitted only on specific non-permanent grounds (eg unforeseen events or volume of work). Subject (if possible) to discussion with (elected) staff representatives and (for overtime between 200-400 hours) to agreement with employee. 40% pay rate (usually 50% by agreement, and 100% after 21.00).
Poland 10 hours per day, 40 hours per week. Legislation. 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week (over 5-day week). 4 hours per day, 150 hours per year. Permitted only on specific grounds (eg employers' special needs or rescue operations), monitored by the authorities. 50% pay rate for the first 2 hours, 100% for further hours (and work at night, on Sunday and holidays. May be converted into time off in lieu at request of employee and with employer’s agreement.
Portugal 8 hours per day, 44 hours per week (up to 10 hours per day and 50 hours per week, by agreement). Legislation and agreements. 8 hours per day, 44 hours per week (up to 10 hours per day, 50 hours per week by agreement). 2 hours per day, 200 hours per year. Permitted only on specific grounds (eg unscheduled increased workload or force majeure), record-keeping required. 50% pay rate for 1st hour, 75% thereafter that, 100% on rest days and holidays. Plus time off in lieu at 25% of the hours worked.
Slovakia 58 hours per week (exemption available by collective agreement and permission from the authorities). Legislation. 40 hours per week over 5- day week ('regular' working schedule - daily minimum of 3 hours and maximum of 9 hours). 18 hours per week, 150 hours per year (excluding certain overtime, such as in the event of disasters). Up to 300 hours in special cases by company-level agreement and with authorities' permission. No conditions for up to 150 hours per year. 25% pay rate (higher by company-level agreement).
Spain 9 hours per day, 40 hours per week. Legislation. 40 hours per week, which is above average collectively agreed working time. 80 hours per year. Requires collective agreement or agreement by employee. Increased pay rate (average 18%) or time off in lieu, by collective agreement.
Sweden 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week. Legislation. 40 hours per week, which is above average collectively agreed working time. None, but overall statutory weekly working time limits (see first column). Temporary exemptions possible by (company or workplace level) agreement . Must be justifiable (eg special needs, or employers' requirements) and often subject to agreement (company or workplace-level). Record-keeping compulsory, monitoring by staff representatives. Increased pay rate (usually 50% to 100%) or time off in lieu, by collective agreement.
UK 48 hours per week (minimum daily rest period of 11 hours). Agreements (company-level). Varies between (company-level) agreements. None, but overall statutory weekly working time limits (from which individuals may 'opt out'). No conditions. Increased pay rate or time off in lieu, by agreement.

Notes: (1) However it is described (maximum or standard) in the national regulations; (2) Threshold beyond which increased pay rate or time off in lieu for overtime begins, either called 'maximum working time', or the 'statutory period', or equivalent to the collectively agreed working hours, depending on the country.

Source: EIRO.

Maximum working time

As indicated by table 1 above, in line with the EU working time Directive, national legislation in all countries considered has set 'maximum' working time (weekly and daily), usually directly - but indirectly when it stipulates maximum allowable overtime, as in Poland, or an upper limit on the exemptions possible above allowable working time, as in the Netherlands. The Directive's 48-hour weekly maximum (including overtime) is the basic weekly maximum working time rule in many countries - such as Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway and the UK - while in another group of countries, the 'maximum' working time is essentially a standard working time - as in Belgium (38 hours), Finland (40), Greece (43) and Spain (40).

Maximum overtime is often set separately from the maximum working time. In the Netherlands for example, the statutory limit of 'incidental hours' is lower and can be exceeded within the upper limit of the statutory maximum working time. In a good many cases (such as Austria, France, Hungary and Italy), the distinction between these two maxima has another meaning. Legislation sets the number of overtime hours, usable as required in a set period, often a year, but still in compliance with the upper limits set for daily and weekly working time. The logic is clear: to limit the over-concentration of allowable hours into too short a period. In Sweden, the statutory maximum also establishes a ceiling for overtime, but it can be temporarily exceeded by local agreement.

Thresholds for the start of overtime

The threshold marking the point at which overtime begins may be set solely by legislation, solely by collective agreement (at sector or company level) or by a combination of the two - see table 1. When set by agreement, the thresholds vary - eg 37 hours per week in the influential industry sector agreement in Denmark, or an average of 39 hours a week in Irish company-level agreement. When set by legislation, these can be solely weekly thresholds in some cases (such as France and Sweden), or both daily and weekly ones (as in Austria, Belgium, Hungary and Poland). The range of weekly thresholds is broad, running from 35 hours a week in France (subject to transitional provisions still in force for small companies with up to 20 employees), to 44 hours a week in Portugal, though 40 hours seems to be the most common. Statutory daily thresholds are most commonly eight hours. Thresholds are often calculated as an average over a given period, in order to facilitate flexibility, as in the Netherlands (see below).

Conditions for use

In terms of the procedural conditions governing the use of overtime, or the justifications required, the picture across the Member States and candidate countries is a very varied one.

Few countries place no conditions whatsoever - either in terms of the justification or the procedures to be followed - on the use of overtime, which then becomes an unchallengeable prerogative of the employer. Unsurprisingly, the UK and Ireland fall into this category. More surprisingly, so does France, but the prerogative is of course only valid within the restraints of the regulatory quota of overtime. However, the ceiling may sometimes be exceeded with permission from the authorities.

In order to use overtime, either at all or over certain limits, some justification is required by law in countries such as Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Sweden. Such justifications include exceptional peaks of workload, unforeseeable or special circumstances and force majeure.

In terms of procedure, some countries require a collective or similar agreement on the decision to use overtime itself (eg sectoral agreements in Italy and works agreements in Germany). The Spanish rules provide that in the absence of a collective agreement, an individual agreement with the employee is enough. In other countries, staff representatives may monitor the use of overtime in the company as provided for in collective agreements (as in the Netherlands) or as part of a local collective agreement on the admissible justifications for overtime ( as in Sweden).

In rarer cases, the monitoring is carried out by the relevant government department or section. This monitoring may be of the justification put forward by employers for the use of overtime (as in Greece) or to verify whether the reasons put forward genuinely match those outlined in legislation (as in Luxembourg and Poland).

Two countries stand out from the rest. Finland requires the personal agreement of an employee for any overtime. The Belgian regulations contain different procedures depending on which type of reason is put forward for the use of overtime: the approval of both the company trade union delegation and the labour inspector if the reason is unforeseeable; and simply informing the authorities in a case of force majeure.

Rules on compensation for overtime

Compensation for overtime is established by collective agreement or by legislation, and usually by a combination of the two.

Rules on compensation for overtime, and especially the choice between an increased premium rate of pay or time off in lieu is determined solely by collective bargaining in countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, two countries that are generally not comparable in terms of their regulatory procedures. In Portugal and Greece, the compensation for overtime scheme is set out solely by legislation, with an increased rate of pay only in Greece, and an increased rate of pay or time off in Portugal.

Two 'mixed' systems seem to be typical. In one, the law determines a minimum increased rate of pay, which may be increased by collective agreement (eg in Italy, Norway and Slovakia). In the second system, the law determines the rules for increased rates of pay and compensatory time off, and collective agreements select one of these two options (as in Finland, Hungary and Luxembourg).

Lastly, in France, a recently introduced rule seems to be unusual, but basically ends up in a situation very similar to that in many other schemes. The rule contains two increased pay scales for overtime work, the higher one being contingent on a collective agreement on the issue being signed, while the increase is transformed into time off in lieu only if there is an agreement.

The increased compensatory rates for overtime pay are very varied, ranging from 10% on top of the normal pay rate up to 150%. The lowest statutory tariffs (10% in Italy and 25% in Ireland) can be raised by collective bargaining. The highest relate to wage increases, not time off in lieu, and to the countries with relatively low pay rates, where overtime comprises a recurrent and doubtless welcome element of workers’ income - Greece (up to 150%) and Portugal (up to 75%). Finland imposes high rates of up to 100%, with a view to restricting overtime, unlike the previously mentioned countries, and fostering flexible working time. Lastly, compensation for overtime often rises progressively with the number of extra hours worked (as in Finland, France, Greece, Norway, Poland and Portugal).

Atypical working time

The regulations set out above refer essentially to full-time hours worked in a standard pattern. Two main forms of 'atypical' working time arrangement are particularly relevant to the regulation of overtime: flexibility of working time, through variations/fluctuations in weekly or daily hours while maintaining an average over a certain reference period, annualisation and flexible working; and part-time work.

Flexibility of working time

A few countries include schemes for making working time more flexible within their standard rules on working time limits and thresholds, and others have introduced special schemes for variation/fluctuation and annualisation of working time, either through legislation or bargaining. These schemes vary widely in scope because the basic reference period over which working time is calculated (and with it the threshold for overtime) varies from a few weeks (often four) to genuine annualisation (ie over a 12-month period).

Finland, France and Portugal are among those countries to have eschewed the weekly framework for calculating the threshold beyond which overtime is counted. In Finland, the 40-hour limit for regular weekly working time may be averaged over 52 weeks. In France, recent legislation has further endorsed the annualised calculation of standard working time, on the condition that there is a collective agreement covering the issue. In Portugal, weekly hours are calculated as an average over a four-month period.

More countries have introduced flexibility into working time with special measures, referred to as variation/fluctuation and annualisation schemes - ie permitting working hours to be varied (usually subject to maximum limits) around an average over a reference period. Usually these strategies are procedurally mixed, in that legislation sets a basic framework and limits on the opportunities for varying weekly hours, while bargaining decides on the introduction of variation or annualisation schemes, and stipulates the rules under which they operate. In Austria and the Netherlands, for example, there are stringent restrictions. In Italy, bargaining implements such schemes by setting the reference period used for the calculation of working time and thresholds to be complied with. In Hungary, bargaining can extend the statutory reference period.

In Germany and the UK, negotiators enjoy total decision-making autonomy over the rules on variation and annualisation.

The special case of part-time work

Most countries examined have adapted their rules on part-time work to comply with the EU Directive on the issue. Part-time work is defined in these cases as working time that is regularly shorter than the standard working time. However, a few countries set a precise maximum for part-time work (eg 30 hours in Denmark and a maximum of 75% of full-time hours in Portugal). Actual part-time working time is usually set by individual employment contract, even in those countries where collective bargaining is the main source of regulation (such as Germany, where certain collective agreements still require a weekly minimum, and the UK).

Part-time work necessitates distinguishing 'extra time' (hours worked beyond the usual working time but below the threshold at which enhanced compensation commences) from 'overtime' (hours worked over a certain threshold that attract enhanced compensation) - see table 2 below. In many countries, the threshold where overtime begins for part-timers is identical to that for full-time work. In other words, additional hours worked by part-time workers up to the official cut-off point for full-time work are not paid at a higher rate (as in Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the UK)

Some countries are exceptions. Italy has a unique dual system, in which part-time work may be 'vertical' (ie comprised of working days similar to those of full-time workers, but with the number of working days reduced), or 'horizontal' (with reduced hours every day). Belgium and Luxembourg provide for increased rates of pay for hours worked by part-timers over their normal hours but below the full-time work threshold. Certain German, Dutch and Norwegian collective agreements provide for increased rates of pay for hours worked beyond those agreed in the individual employment contract. Some countries go even further, defining overtime for part-time workers as hours worked beyond those provided for in the contract, thus making statutory compensation for overtime mandatory as soon as the limit is exceeded, and when there is no collective agreement on the issue.

Slovakian law, on the other hand, prohibits any 'additional hours' whatsoever for part-timers. Finland gives the employer the right to change part-time work into full-time work unilaterally. Lastly, France allows part-timers to work 'additional hours' equivalent to 10% of their normal hours, paid at the normal rate, and 'excess hours' equivalent to 33% of normal hours, with the part of this 33% beyond the 10% threshold being paid at a higher rate.

Table 2. Rules on additional hours worked by part-time employees
Country Extra time Overtime
Austria Below full-time hours. Hours in excess of full time.
Belgium Hours above collectively-agreed working time for part-timers but below full-time working time. May attract increased compensation. -
Denmark Below full-time hours. Hours in excess of full time (prohibited by industry sector collective agreement).
Finland Below full-time hours (except by agreement). Unnecessary (employer has unilateral right to change a part-time job into a full-time one).
France Restricted to 10% of working time provided for in part-timers' contract. By sector-level agreement, up to one-third above part-timers working time. Attracts 25% increased compensation for hours in excess of extra time.
Germany Determined by collective agreements. Some provide for increased compensation for hours above working time provided for in part-timers' individual contracts. Determined by collective agreements. Some provide for increased compensation for hours above full-time hours.
Greece - In exceptional circumstances and up to a limit of 8 hours total working time per day.
Hungary No provisions. No provisions.
Ireland - Entitled to overtime payment, at same rate, if comparable full-timer entitled to such payment.
Italy For 'horizontal' part-time work (see main text), limited to 10% of part-timers' normal working time. For 'vertical' part-time work (see main text), hours in excess of full time according to the same rules as apply to full-timers. For 'horizontal' part-time, hours in excess of extra time attract increased compensation of 50%.
Luxembourg - Hours above working time provided for in part-timers' individual contracts, limited to 20% of daily working time. Attracts increased compensation.
Netherlands - Determined by collective agreement for hours in excess of part-timers' individual contracts.
Norway Below full-time hours (except by agreement). Hours in excess of full time and according to the same rules (below this level by collective agreement).
Poland No provisions. No provisions.
Portugal Limited to 80 hours per year (or up to working time identical to full time). -
Slovakia Not permitted. Not permitted
Spain Provided for in individual contracts. Limited to 15% of working time (up to 60% by collective agreement). -
Sweden Below full-time hours. Hours in excess of full time, according to the same rules.
UK Below full-time hours. Hours in excess of full time.

Source: EIRO.

Other exceptions

Many countries have provisions in legislation or collective agreements for special overtime schemes (see below under 'The rules' field of application'). These may apply to particular occupations, such as: managerial staff in Denmark, France and Norway; teachers in Norway; healthcare professionals, transport workers and members of the armed forces in Ireland; hotel and catering employees, healthcare professionals and aviation employees in Belgium; and occupations with a risk of cancer and exposure to radiation in Slovakia. Alternatively, they may apply to groups requiring special protection - such as young people in Hungary or pregnant women and mothers of young children in Portugal - or to shiftworkers - as in Austria, Denmark, France and Ireland.

Statistical information

The Eurostat Labour Force Survey is virtually the only statistical source capable of providing homogeneous data on working time at the European level as well as carrying out chronological updating affording a long-term overview. On the basis of the statements made by respondents, it measures the working time of their principal economic activity. Weekly working time is defined either as usual working time, or as actual working time. The reasons for the distinction between these two estimates are stated. Furthermore, in its annual updates on working time, EIRO provides an updated summary of developments in Europe, based on a series of indicators (many of which are from official national sources) which makes the opportunity for comparison better.

Yet none of these information sources allows 'additional hours' (which may be included in usual working time for some and not for others) to be measured, let alone overtime subject to increased rates of pay and time off in lieu to be identified. In any case, even when international comparison is not sought, at the national level this type of information is rare and disparate. In table 3 below, we provide, on an indicative basis, what information is available (from only a limited number of countries) on three indicators of the level of overtime working, relating to 2001.

Table 3. Extent of overtime working, 2001
Country Average hours of overtime per employee Overtime as % of total volume of hours worked % of wage-earning population doing overtime Notes
Austria - - 26.5 Figure includes part-timers and all additional hours.
Denmark - - 13.8 Figure includes all additional hours.
Finland - 8.4 - -
France 55 per year - 48 Figures refer only to full-time workers and companies with over 20 employees, based on declarations by employers.
Germany 61.5 per year 3.6 - Figures from Institute for Employment Research (Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung, IAB).
Greece 32.9 per year - - Figures from Labour Inspectorate (SEPE).
Hungary - 8.3 - Figure includes all additional hours.
Italy - 4.5 in industry, 6.0 in services - -
Netherlands 0.5 per week* - - Figure includes all types of employment contract.
Norway - 4.6 21 Figures refer to full-time workers only, all additional hours.
Poland - 2.1 - Figure covers only companies with more than 9 employees.
Portugal 4.6 per week - 7.7 Figures for 1999.
Slovakia 160 per year - - Figure refers to average number of overtime hours per employee where overtime work has been authorised above the 150-hour statutory annual limit.
Spain 5.9 per year - - Figure includes full-time workers only.
Sweden - 3.3 - Figure includes both full- and part-time workers.
UK 1.9 per week - 26.1 Figures, from New Earnings Survey, refer to full-time workers and paid hours only.

Note: Except where otherwise stated, all figures are based on national labour force survey data for wage earners, and include all additional hours. * Very recent research by TNO Arbeid suggests that over 2000-2, average overtime amounted to 9.5 hours a week - although this figure is controversial, the official figure given in the table seems on the low side.

Source: EIRO.

Strategies, stances and debates

An examination of the trends since the 1980s indicates that four groups of issues lie at the core of disputes and negotiations between the industrial relations actors relating to overtime:

  • how to integrate new goals related to increasing the flexibility of working time;
  • at what level to set the rules governing overtime;
  • how the use of overtime is combined with new forms of diversification of working time; and
  • deciding on the field of application of norms on overtime.

Changing goals

The goals traditionally linked to the use of overtime, which still exist, are now combined with new ones associated with trends toward increasing the flexibility of working time.

Traditional goals persist

Between the end of the Second World War and the break in economic growth which occurred in the 1970s, the objectives of the various actors with regard to the use of overtime were stable, in a context of rapid employment growth to near full employment in western Europe, and of permanent labour shortages in the central and eastern European countries with centrally-planned economies (which are now, following political and economic transformation, awaiting EU membership).

For employers, overtime represented the principal source of flexibility in the quantity of labour utilised (sometimes combined with short-time working measures when there was a temporary drop in activity). Moreover, overtime was a means to increase workers' wages without having to increase basic pay rates.

Trade unions were hostile to the permanent use of overtime, principally due to its negative impacts on working conditions and workers' lives outside the workplace. A reduction in the volume of overtime comprised one strand of the unions' overall goal of reducing working time. However, in pursuing this strategy, the unions often encountered reluctance from their members, who were in many cases more interested in extra income.

State intervention, with the stated aim of improving working conditions and the quality of life, mainly concentrated on limiting the use of overtime, by either establishing maximum limits or raising the associated labour costs.

Some aspects of these 'traditional' concerns are still pertinent:

  • specific labour shortages and the very slow development of other instruments for introducing flexibility into working time promote employers’ demand for overtime. This issue is, for example, emphasised in Germany, Greece, Portugal and the candidate countries. For example, it is reported that overtime has traditionally been the major flexibility tool used by Hungarian employers - it existed in the state socialist period and has remained in use in the new market economy dominated by private business. In Greece, the most widespread form of flexible working time concerns hours worked in excess of statutory working time;
  • where wage rates are comparatively low (as in Greece, Portugal and the candidate countries) and/or when regular overtime has become a permanent component of wages, employers and employees (despite any stance the latter’s unions might adopt) still favour the use of overtime. For example, UK employers refer to employee dependence on overtime pay as a barrier to change in this area; and
  • concerns about intensification of work, and a rise in fatigue, stress, and 'burn-out', have led many trade unions to run campaigns against the large-scale use of overtime (as in the Scandinavian countries and Belgium).

New issues emerge

The phase of slower and more cyclical economic growth that began in the mid-1970s introduced new elements into the debates on overtime. Employers presented enhanced capacity for adjustment and reductions in labour costs as the necessary responses to the demands of competitiveness, and undertook a widespread 'offensive' around the introduction of flexibility into the employment relationship (or the wage relationship). Two key issues thus arose for employers:

  • what role does the flexibility of working time have alongside other sources of flexibility (eg wage flexibility and 'atypical' forms of employment)? and
  • what role does overtime have alongside other means of increasing the flexibility of working time?

Employers took varying approaches in response to these issues in different countries, sectors and types of company. In some cases, employers prioritised widening the conditions in which overtime could be used and/or reducing its cost (as in Greece). In the majority of cases, given the cost of overtime, which it was deemed difficult to reduce, the trend was more toward using alternatives, such as variation of working time around an average, part-time work, and the greater use of workers without employment contracts (see below under 'Overtime and the diversification of working time').

For trade unions, two new factors assumed a growing role in the equation. First, in response to increased unemployment, the reduction of working time became in most countries (as it had been during recessions before the Second World War) a demand linked to the goal of safeguarding or creating jobs. In this context, it was important for unions that overtime should not impede the hoped-for employment results of a negotiated reduction of working time (this was a major concern for German unions - see below under 'Overtime and the diversification of working time'). Second, increased flexibility of work became a subject for 'trade-off' (or 'quid pro quo') bargaining. The unions thus had to define the role played by overtime in the exchange of concessions. For example, should greater use of overtime be accepted in order to restrict the use of precarious forms of employment (a major concern for Spanish unions)? Or should the time off in lieu for overtime work be prioritised over increased rates of pay (this question was raised in France in debates around the recent laws on the 35-hour week - see below under 'Overtime and the diversification of working time')?

Everywhere, government policy has promoted increased flexibility in the name of competitiveness and job creation, though the forms of flexibility prioritised have varied from country to country. However, the general trend has been towards: relaxation of statutory rules on overtime; expansion of the options for decentralised management of overtime at company level; and lengthening of the reference periods on the basis of which maximum limits are calculated.

The adoption by the EU of the objective of 'quality of work' or 'quality of employment' after the Lisbon European Council meeting in March 2000 (EU0004241F) has increased concerns among governments about the issues of fatigue and occupational health. Furthermore, under the European employment strategy, since 1998 the annual EU Employment Guidelines have invited the social partners to negotiate, at the appropriate levels (and in particular at sectoral and enterprise levels), agreements to modernise the organisation of work, including flexible working arrangements, with the aim of 'making undertakings productive and competitive and achieving the required balance between flexibility and security'. The reduction of overtime is listed as one of the themes for such agreements. Because of these considerations, governments have frequently expressed their desire to limit the volume of overtime, while delegating responsibility for negotiations on how to achieve this to the social partners.

The definition of overtime objectives is thus related to a debate about the methods of regulating it and the levels at which this should be done.

Methods and levels for regulating overtime

There are many interlinked issues related to the ways in which overtime is regulated and the levels at which this is done. These include: the respective roles of rules produced by legislation and collective bargaining; the articulation of the various bargaining levels; and, at company or workplace level, the jurisdiction of workers' representatives and works councils. Furthermore, the increasing number of levels of regulation has intensified a continual questioning of the 'effectiveness' of the rules.

Legislative and negotiated rules

As seen above (under 'Current legislation and collectively agreed provisions'), the countries considered can be located on a continuum running from strong state regulation of overtime to a trend towards delegating decisions to collective bargaining. Northern European countries are generally situated in the latter camp and the social partners are in agreement over maintaining this principle. However, the transposition of the EU working time Directive into national regulations (as late as April 2003 in the case of Italy - IT0305305F) has, in some countries (notably the UK, Denmark and the candidate countries), indirectly introduced a new statutory constraint by setting a maximum weekly or daily working time. The UK has largely got round this restriction by providing numerous possibilities for exemption.

In countries with a tradition of strong state-led regulation, a general trend affecting all aspects of the employment relationship can be observed. First, the statutory rules have been made more flexible in their application. Second, new legislation has delegated responsibility for defining the conditions for using overtime either to collective bargaining, or the individual employment contract. Thus, in the Netherlands, the 1996 Working Time Act abolished the administrative procedures applying to overtime, entrusting responsibility for the issue to the social partners (NL0110102F). In Austria, the social partners and the government reached an agreement in 1997 on amendments to two laws governing working time and rest periods, permitting greater flexibility. However, in 2001, the Minister of the Economy and Labour challenged the supposed rigidity of this amended legislation, proposing, among other measures, to increase 'normal' working hours from 10 to 12 hours per day, which would have reduced overtime payments. Given trade union opposition, the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) employers' association, although it agreed with the content of the proposal, did not support it in order to safeguard the collective bargaining system, and the Minister had to abandon the plan.

However, counter-trends have emerged. In Greece, for example, legislation adopted in 2000 (law 1974/2000), with a view to promoting job creation, formally abolished overtime while effectively retaining is as 'overtime of a special type', with a reduced volume and higher cost (GR0104104N). This was welcomed by unions and fiercely criticised by employers. In 2002, the Portuguese government proposed the introduction of a Labour Code (PT0211104F), which would reduce the maximum amount of overtime (from 200 to 100 hours per year) and increase the cost (a 100% pay premium instead of the existing 50%, from the first hour of overtime). However, in Hungary, in 1995 the government abandoned restrictions on the amount of overtime that had been implemented as a transitional measure to combat unemployment.

Lastly, in some countries, overtime has been an issue in tripartite consultations on working time. This has been the case, for example, in Germany (see below under 'Overtime and the diversification of working time') and Slovakia, where a tripartite working group found a compromise that became part of a 2002 law regulating maximum weekly working time, including overtime. However, in Norway, new legislation making the overtime scheme more flexible (NO0304103F) has been intensely criticised by the trade unions because the government pre-empted the forthcoming conclusions of a public committee - which includes social partner representatives - charged with making proposals for a wider reform of the relevant legislation, the Act relating to Workers' Protection and the Working Environment (NO0210103F).

Bargaining levels

A general trend in the level of collective bargaining on overtime can be observed in many countries over the past two decades - the more or less coordinated decentralisation of the level at which bargaining takes place. In most countries, setting general rules continues to be the responsibility of sector-level bargaining, but company and workplace-level collective agreements have been granted growing leeway in the determination of the precise methods for applying sector-level agreements, sometimes including the option of exemptions from the sectoral agreements' provisions within specific limits.

In Spain, a 1997 intersectoral agreement on collective bargaining (ES9706211F) stated, at the trade unions’ request, that any overtime that was not strictly necessary had a negative impact on employment levels, and the trade union and employers' confederations that signed the agreement set themselves the objective of reducing overtime, but left it to sector and company-level negotiation to accomplish this. The results appear mediocre; in 2001, only 11% of collective agreements, covering 14% of employees included this goal, and usually did not stipulate mechanisms for achieving it. During the bargaining over Belgium's 2001-2 intersectoral agreement (BE0101337F), the social partners requested that the sector-level negotiators should address the issue of overtime in sectors experiencing specific labour market problems. In the UK, the diminishing amount of multi-employer bargaining means that when overtime is negotiated at all, it is negotiated at company level, where it does not constitute a major issue in bargaining. In Sweden, no direct measures relating to overtime were agreed in the most recent major bargaining rounds in 1998 (SE9806190F) and 2001 (SE0105102F). However, in Hungary, the marginal nature of sector-level agreements means that the topic is dealt with by company-level agreements, where the annual amount of overtime is one of the most common issues.

The role of workers' representatives

In those countries where there are representatives or bodies elected by employees at company or workplace level, legislation grants them very varied degrees of responsibility in respect of overtime, running from the right to be informed and give an opinion, through to the right of joint decision-making. In Germany, for example, the employer needs the agreement of the works council to use overtime, except where a collective agreement specifically provides that overtime may be unilaterally ordered by the employer. In Denmark, shop stewards (elected workplace trade union representatives) play a key role in company-level overtime negotiations.

It should be noted that, given employee attitudes towards overtime (see above under 'Traditional goals persist'), works councils and workplace employee and union representatives do not generally adopt a restrictive attitude in this area, focusing notably on obtaining some leverage in order to limit the employer's unilateral power.

The effectiveness of norms

The numerous means and levels of regulation of overtime has generated a high degree of complexity. Illegal practices - such as non-recording or non-declaration of overtime to avoid the maximum limits, non-payment of overtime or premium pay rates, and failure to provide time off in lieu earned - are widely reported from countries such as Greece, Hungary and Portugal. These practices may be imposed due to power relationships favourable to the employer, or stem from informal arrangements with the employees, who obtain immediate advantages from them. In Luxembourg, an obligation, under legislation adopted in 1977, to obtain permission from the authorities for overtime, involves such long delays that it is estimated that half of all overtime is worked without permission, and the issue has now been displaced onto that of flexible working hours.

Similarly, the diversification and flexibility of working time can make the monitoring of overtime by labour inspectors and similar bodies difficult. This point is reported, for example, from the Netherlands, while in Finland some 20% of companies are said not to have any kind of record-keeping on working time. The important issue is thus not solely what the overtime rules are, but also the extent to which they are complied with.

Overtime and the diversification of working time

The regulation of overtime has been developed with reference to the model of a full-time employee subject to a stable collective working time schedule (see above under 'Current legislation and collectively agreed provisions'). However, the issues in bargaining and the sources of dispute have been radically altered as a result of the dual impact of the diversification of working time and of forms of employment. Two important illustrations of this change are provided by the spread of provisions on the variation/fluctuation of working time (see above under 'Flexibility of working time') and the increase in part-time work.

Overtime and variation of working time

In every country, though to differing degrees, legislative rules have developed which make possible - usually contingent upon the subsequent conclusion of a collective agreement - the variation of employees' daily or weekly working time, around an average and observing certain maxima, over periods ranging from a few weeks to a year (or even a much longer one, using personal 'working time accounts'). One of the direct consequences of this is that the costs of overtime and restrictions on its use are avoided as long as basic working time is not exceeded on average over the reference period. Employers are therefore strongly in favour of these types of solution, while trade unions, usually hostile to begin with, have often come to accept them as trade-offs for safeguarding jobs and/or reducing working time. However, it seems that the existence of a wide variety of options for varying working hours has not driven employers to stop using overtime, especially when such variation goes hand-in-hand with a reduction of average working time. Two examples are particularly significant.

In Germany, trade unions at sector level, over the 1980s, obtained a reduction of collectively-agreed working time through bargaining, in order to promote employment. As a quid pro quo, they agreed to a certain degree of flexibility in working time. In the 1990s, they realised that despite this flexibility, the volume of overtime was still high and remained stable as a proportion (3.5%-3.8%) of all hours worked. The effect of the reduction of working time on employment levels might thus have been partially cancelled out. At the outset of discussions within the tripartite national Alliance for Jobs (Bündnis für Arbeit) launched by the government in December 1998 (DE9812286N), the unions succeeded in placing the reduction of overtime on the agenda set out in a joint statement with the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände, BDA), linking it to other aspects of working time reorganisation. The statement thus included in its aims 'an employment-promoting distribution of work and flexible working time arrangements' (eg reduction of overtime, use of working time accounts and promotion of part time work). However, a high level of overtime persisted (DE0101201N), generating heated trade union criticisms of employers. The employers responded by referring first to particular needs, increased at the time by renewed economic growth, and second to obstacles encountered in negotiating greater working time flexibility. A strong relationship in bargaining thus emerged between the objectives of job creation, the reduction of working time, the introduction of increased flexibility into working time and the use of overtime.

The same relationship arose in France when the 1998 (FR9806113F) and 2000 (FR0001137F) laws on the reduction of standard weekly working time to 35 hours were introduced. This reduction could, through a sector or company-level agreement, be coupled with the introduction of variation of working time around an average and of personal working time accounts. The maximum annual volume of overtime (130 hours per employee, which could be lowered or raised by collective bargaining) was cut to 90 hours if there was an agreement on variation ('modulation') of working time. In response to complaints from employers, and after the election of a new coalition government, in October 2002 the government introduced a decree giving collective bargaining responsibility for setting the maximum annual overtime quota (FR0209105F). Pending the result of such bargaining, the statutory annual maximum has been raised to 180 hours for an 18-month transition period, with the 90-hour ceiling being retained only where there is a working time variation scheme of considerable scope. The major increase in the number of working time variation agreements since 1998 has thus not prevented employers from demanding more leeway in relation to overtime.

Overtime and part-time work

Two issues have emerged, in different ways depending on the country, in terms of the relationship between overtime and part-time work (see above under 'The special case of part-time work'):

  1. part-time work can be considered as an instrument of quantitative working time flexibility that partly replaces overtime, eg in order to extend the time during which facilities are used and units are open. Employers may choose between part-time work and overtime, based on the respective costs or availability of labour, while trade unions favour one or the other on the basis of the relative disadvantages that they attribute to the two solutions; and
  2. there is the option of 'additional hours' above the working time provided for in the part-time employee’s individual employment contract, whether or not these are legally considered as overtime.

The conditions for using these additional hours by part-timers and the rate at which they are paid may fall solely within the jurisdiction of the law and the individual employment contract. In only a few countries are they also a subject for collective bargaining, dealing with issues such as the maximum number of such hours, the rate at which they should be paid, the employee’s right to refuse to work them and how much notice should be given. These matters do not seem to constitute a major issue in bargaining or state intervention. However, in France, additional hours are limited by law to 10% of the working time specified in the part-timers' contract, a ceiling that can be raised to 33% by a sector-level agreement, which is a notable incentive for bargaining on the issue. The most notable development in this area occurred in Spain in 1998, when an agreement between the government and the unions (rejected by employers’ organisations) restricted the conditions for the use of part-time work and additional hours (ES9811289F). However, in 2001 a governmental decree (ES0103237F) greatly relaxed these rules, especially by enabling the maximum amount of additional hours to be increased from 15% to 60% of contractual working time by collective agreement.

The rules' field of application

In no country considered does the legislation on overtime apply all employees, nor is there anywhere a national intersectoral agreement of general scope on the issue. The existence of special rules relating to, and exemptions from, rules governing overtime, should be stressed because they frequently turn out to be a source of disputes. The rules may vary by sector, type of company or occupation (see above under 'Other exceptions').


In most countries, the general legislation does not apply to:

  • the public sector, however defined from country to country; or
  • certain industries in which working time is subject to special constraints - such as agriculture, transport, hotels/cafés/restaurants, household domestic work and the healthcare sector.

In Denmark, for instance, there are different special rules for various categories of public employee, supplemented by customary practice and agreements with a restricted field of application. Since 1991, the state and public sector unions have attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to instigate a set of common rules on working time and overtime. In Poland, a dispute broke out recently when the large supermarket chains tried to impose a quantity of overtime that their young staff found excessive, and this resulted in the creation of trade unions by the staff.

Types of company

Frequently, very small businesses and companies employing only family members are excluded from the overtime regulations or enjoy a more flexible regime. For example, in Hungary, an amendment to the law in 2001 exempted the owners of companies and their family members from certain rules concerning working time.

Associations representing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the craft industry, where these exist, often take up a different stance from those mainly representing the interests of big business, especially as it is harder for the former to use sophisticated means of varying working time. Because of this, smaller firms may wish to use overtime more widely and freely. However, when SMEs face difficulties hiring staff, they might, on the other hand, be concerned that a scheme that is less protective toward their employees will add to their problems (a worry expressed by the organisation representing crafts industry employers in France).

Occupational categories

Specific occupational overtime schemes may correspond to particular characteristics of certain industries (see above) but may also cut across sectors. This refers mainly to professionals and managers or particular subgroups of them. Usually their working schedule is flexible and additional hours are assumed to be covered by their basic pay and flat-rate bonuses. This traditional arrangement is now coming under challenge in certain areas.

For example, in Ireland, junior doctors have recently challenged a new method of defining overtime that the health service sought to introduce. In Sweden, the question of overtime, which is rarely seen as a problem by blue-collar workers, has been raised on occasion by white-collar and professional unions (notably in respect of high levels of unpaid hours worked by young engineers). In France, the second law on the reduction of working time, adopted in 2000, introduced the option for collective agreements to set working time in terms of days worked per year, without stipulating a number of hours, for certain categories of managerial and professional staff (FR0001137F). This provision was sharply criticised by managerial and professional staff trade unions (FR9911118N).


Analysis of the industrial relations actors' objectives and strategies enables the 20 countries considered to be grouped by reference to three typical models, as follows.

  • In the first model, overtime does not appear on the legislative agenda and represents only a minor issue in collective bargaining because employers and employees, for differing reasons, want free use of overtime. The matter is regulated by local agreements and customary arrangements at the most decentralised level. The example of the UK is the closest to this model.
  • In the second model, overtime constitutes only one strand of a development that has affected all forms of working time flexibility. It is an old technique that is now being engulfed in a more sophisticated set of methods (from working time variation around an average to annualisation, personal time accounts, part-time work and additional hours etc). Most countries can be situated close to this model, where overtime is, at most, one of the elements in a set of trade-offs between employment levels, pay and flexibility.
  • Lastly, in a small group of countries, overtime, while being included in overall bargaining in the same way as in the second model, has at particular times become a special issue around which the social partners have mobilised. This is sometimes because the unions have made it an important goal (as in Germany), sometimes because a government, due to flexibility-oriented objectives, has greatly relaxed the regulations (as in France and Norway), and sometimes because a government, acting to attain job creation goals, has reduced its use and raised its cost (as in Greece).

(Jacques Freyssinet and François Michon, IRES)

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