The working time directive

words: Simon Bloxham, Health and Safety Strategist for Safety for Business

Are you taking any notice of the working time directive? Well, this may be of interest to you.

The rights of UK workers to limited working hours, rest breaks and paid holiday could be adversely affected by the reported lobbying by government ministers, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, to scrap the Working Time Directive during a cabinet meeting on the UK’s future trade relationship with the EU.

The directive is implemented into UK law by the Working Time Regulations 1998, which came into force on 1 October 1998. Under these regulations, working time is defined as any period during which a worker is “working, at his employer’s disposal and carrying out his activity or duties”, any period during which the worker is receiving “relevant training”, or any additional period that is agreed in a relevant agreement to be “working time”.

The regulations limit working hours and provide for rest breaks and minimum paid holiday rights. The regulations apply to “workers”, including employees, temporary workers and freelancers, but not the genuinely self-employed. Young workers are protected by special rights, such as greater rest break entitlements.

If the regulations were scrapped, these rights would be lost, potentially leading to employees facing significant health and safety risks.

Commenting on the news reports, General Secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady said: “I’ve seen reports of a ministerial plot to scrap the Working Time Directive. This is a straight-up attack on our rights at work. Millions of workers – especially part-time women – got paid holidays because of this rule. And it stops bosses from forcing us to work ridiculous hours.

“The PM promised not to weaken workers’ rights after Brexit. This will test if she can keep her word, or if she’s a prisoner of extremists in her own cabinet.”

Working time

Working time does not usually include time spent travelling to and from the workplace and time during rest breaks. Time spent on call has been the subject of much debate, which has concluded that “on call” time constitutes working time if the employee is required to be in the workplace rather than at home, even if the worker is asleep for some or all of that time.

Workers are entitled to regular breaks in the working day and rest periods between working days. Employers must provide that rest periods can be taken, but do not need to ensure they are actually taken. The rest period is in addition to annual leave and can be paid or unpaid.

There should be a minimum rest period of 11 uninterrupted hours between each working day, and a minimum weekly rest period of not less than 24 uninterrupted hours in each seven-day period. Days off can be averaged over a two-week period. Workers who work for six hours are entitled to a 20-minute break. There should be adequate rest breaks if monotonous work places the worker at risk.

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