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 (93/104/EC) 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 by the Working Time Regulations (1998).
The directive 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) judgments on "on-call" time, the health sectors in some other countries have used it and it has also been used in a few other sectors.
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 most of the positions held by the European trade union movement and sought to weaken this essential piece of health and safety legislation.
This first attempt at revision ended in April 2009, when conciliation talks between the European Parliament and the Member States' Governments ended without agreement. 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. The existing Directive remains in force and, for the trade union movement, this is preferable to the position being pushed by some EU Governments which would have resulted in a regression in the level of protection provided by the current directive.
If at first you don't succeed...
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 WTD 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 and progressive Members of the European Parliament to ensure that the directive was not underminded and provided the proper health and safety protections for our members and the wider public.
The European trade unions and employers decided to try to negotiate an agreement to revise the Directive but after almost a year of negotiations it became clear in December 2012 that agreement was not possible. The EU Commission must now decide whether it will bring forward proposals for a revision of the Directive. However, with the Comission reaching the end of its term in 2014, this has not been identified as a priority. In the interim, the 1993 Directive, as updated in 2000 and 2003 remains the current legislation in practice.
For the official versions of the Directives, please click on the links below: