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20 December 2017

Working time: Shackles coming off or shackles going on?

4 mins

An article in the Sun on Sunday this week declared: “SHACKLES COME OFF … Ministers plot to scrap EU limits …. Families can earn more by working longer hours”.  It appeared to be the result of an off-record briefing from the Ministers to which it referred – or at least from those close enough to them to know their thinking.

The “EU limits” to which the piece referred were the Working Time Regulations 1998, which implemented the European Working Time Directive.  Probably the best-known provision of the Regulations was the imposition of the 48 hour working week, and it was this to which the Sun’s “EU limits” referred.

What the Sun’s piece did not make clear however was that a worker can opt out of the 48 hour working week of their own volition, should they choose.  There is nothing whatsoever in the Regulations (or anywhere else) which forbids a working week of more than 48 hours – except where such restrictions are imposed because it would be against public safety to do so, for example in the haulage industry.  Around a third of workplaces have at least one employee opted out of the 48 hour limit, and in 15% of workplaces all employees have opted out.

The Regulations therefore provide a protection against being forced to work longer, not a restriction preventing people from doing so.  In that respect, the Sun’s headline could just as easily have referred to the removal of the Working Time Regulations as shackles going on, not coming off.

But the Working Time Regulations go far further than merely implementing the 48 hour limit.  Protections for night work, the provision of rest periods and rest breaks, and (probably of most importance to most workers) a minimum holiday entitlement.  If the “EU limits” decried in the Sun are to be removed, then it is reasonable to assume that these protections are to be removed also.

The central implication: that “EU limits” are unfairly restricting the wages of UK workers, who would be working (and being paid for) far longer hours but for the dead hand of Brussels, is debunked by the research issued by the government in 2014.

Were it the case that the 48 hour limit was defeating workers’ desires to work longer hours, then one would be able to identify a large population of workers at the cusp of the 48 hour limit, those workers clamouring for longer hours, but denied them by the guillotine of a 48 hour week.  This population however does not exist, according to the government: more than twice as many workers are working 37 to 39 hours than are working 43 to 45 hours (around 4.5 million as against around 2 million).  

Neither does the government research indicate any clamour from business to increase the hours worked by their staff:

The evidence suggests that, at least in the long term, firms have not responded to the constraint at 48 hours by try to work existing workers up to the maximum permitted by the regulations.  The data is more consistent with firms replacing hours by increasing employment at shorter working patterns (a simplistic example would be hiring two workers to work 25 hours each rather than having one worker doing 50 hours).

 This pattern – of more workers on shorter hours – is also beneficial to women, who make up a sizeable majority of the part time workforce, primarily because of child care responsibilities: 2.25 million work part time as against 6.18 million women, according to the most recent statistics .   The replacement of more part time jobs with fewer longer hours jobs would therefore appear to pose a risk to women’s employment.

The removal of employment protections such as the Working Time Regulations has long been identified as a potential benefit by Brexit supporters, and a risk by Brexit’s opponents.  Whether the government really aims to remove these protections – or alternatively that the Sun on Sunday piece did not accurately reflect a government’s intention – remains to be seen.

The Prime Minister’s appearance in the Commons on Monday however appeared to lend weight to the removal being on the government’s radar.  On four occasions during her statement to the House of Commons on Monday, the Prime Minister was asked about the plans.  She gave a variety of answers were given, but none which definitively answered the point either way.  This would tend to suggest that the removal of working time protections is under consideration, but also that – quite rightly – this is a highly contentious and unpopular proposition on which the government is wary of declaring its intentions.    

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