The potential health and safety hazards of working excessively long hours are clear and trade unions around the world have long campaigned for a reasonable limit to working hours. Working time was the subject of the first International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention – the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention (No 1) adopted in 1919, which established the 8-hour working day and 48-hour working week as the average.
Long working hours have associated costs not only to workers and employers but also to society as a whole. Evidence has shown that excessively long working time can lead to an increased risk of occupational accidents, stress and other illness, reduced productivity, family breakdown and other consequences. Burnt-out workers are a danger to themselves and to others!
EU Working Time Directive
The Working Time Directive was adopted at EU level in 1993. The Directive aims to set out both a framework for working time for occupational health and safety reasons, and to limit a broad culture of excessive working time. It was implemented in the UK in 1998 by the Working Time Regulations, which guarantee 4 weeks paid holiday a year — new for 6 million British workers. The 1993 EU Directive (updated in 2000 and 2003) remains the current legislation in practice.
The Directive also contained a time-defined individual opt-out derogation to working 48 hours a week, which was to be reviewed by November 2003. The UK was the main country to use this opt-out but more recently, following European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgements on 'on-call' time, the health sectors in some other Member States have also begun to use it, and it is spreading to other sectors too.
The European Commission finally began the process of reviewing the Directive in January 2004. Unfortunately, the Commission's proposals for a revised Directive went counter to the position held by the European trade union movement by seeking to weaken this essential piece of health and safety legislation.
Following sustained campaigning by GMB and other unions, this first attempt at revision was rejected in April 2009, when the European Parliament voted against proposals which it considered a threat to workers' health and safety and fundamental rights. GMB and our European trade union colleagues praised the European Parliament for its commitment to workers' health and safety and in preventing Member States' Governments and the European Commission from weakening these vital rights.
If at first you don't succeed...
Refusing to take no as an answer, in March 2010 the European Commission began a second attempt to revise the Working Time Directive. It launched a consultation of the European social partners (ETUC and European employers BusinessEurope), publishing a Communication on Reviewing the Working Time Directive. GMB's position and priorities remained the same as they were when the 2004 review process began: the Working Time Directive is a health and safety measure; the individual opt-out to the 48-hour week must be phased out; and the ECJ decisions confirming that on-call time in the workplace is working time and must be followed by compensatory rest, must be enforced. GMB worked with our European trade union colleagues to ensure that the Directive was not undermined and provided the proper health and safety protections for our members and the wider public.
European trade unions and employers decided to try to negotiate an agreement to revise the Directive but after almost a year it became clear in December 2012 that agreement was not possible.
The new EU Commission launched a further consultation on the Working Time Directive in early 2015 (see our GMB response in the Additional Resources below) and it is clear this is the first step in an attempt to revise the Directive. GMB and our European trade union colleagues fear that there is growing support from the EU Commission and national Member State governments for deregulating and weakening our working time rights.
GMB members are acutely aware that the Tory government is all out to axe these vital rights, with David Cameron targeting them in his EU reform negotiations. We will campaign at all levels to resist any undermining of these rights.
GMB response to the European Commission public consultation on the Review of the Working Time Directive (Directive 2003/88/EC)