Human Resource Management

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Amicus claims victory on Working Time Directive

1 May 2001 - Amicus, the UK's largest private sector union has claimed victory in the battle over reduced working hours. The European Union upheld the union's complaint over the British Government's 'unlawful and inadequate implementation of the working time directive' and issued Infringement Proceedings against the British Government giving them two months to comply.

Amicus-MSF originally raised the issue with the Department of Trade and Industry in 1999/2000 but the DTI would not review or change implementation regulations. An official complaint (EU2000-4702) was made to the EU on June 22nd 2000. The EU has now upheld the three principal complaints:

1. That under British implementation of the Working Time Directive, employers do not enforce workers' rights to breaks and holidays. Theoretically, employees could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Breaks were interpreted as entitlements which workers could choose whether or not to take. The union argued that it was the employer's responsibility to ensure that breaks were taken and the European commission appears to have agreed with this interpretation, according to Amicus-MSF.

2. Within the terms of the UK implementation of the Directive employees may voluntarily work additional hours above normal working time, which goes unmeasured and unrecorded by employers. The union argued that this comprehensively undermined the intent of the directive. According to Roger Lyons General Secretary Amicus:

"In the UK this drives a coach and horses through the directive and in particular it effects Managerial & Professional occupations who are under pressure to volunteer and millions do so to the detriment of family and social life."

3. In the UK overtime hours on night shift are not counted towards normal hours. Thus overtime night shift hours are not included in the 48 hours count, in contravention of the Directive.

The formal Infringement Procedure to the UK government under article 226 of the EC Treaty gives the UK Government two months to comply.

Roger Lyons Amicus General Secretary said,

"This is a historic victory for British workers which Amicus has been pursuing for over three years. I will be seeking urgent discussions with the DTI to explain why we made the complaint and why the UK Government should now urgently change the law to comply with the Directive. British workers work the longest hours in Europe, this decision will cut excessive working time considerably, will slash stress and will bring us closer to the level playing field on working hours already enjoyed throughout the rest of Europe."

Based on eurostat figures, the UK has the highest usual levels of hours worked by full-time workers in the European Union. British employees work an average of 43.6 hours a week compared to the EU average of 40.3 and France's 38.9. In fact, in the UK:

1 in 25 men work more than 60hrs a week
1 in 10 men work more than 55hrs a week
1 in 4 men work more than 45hrs a week
(Source TUC & CBI)

Last year, a report published by Blick UK Ltd, a supplier of electronic Time and Attendance Systems claimed that a quarter of UK employees had opted out of the Working Time Regulations.

According to Liza Bewick, Blick UK's Time Division General Manager, this illustrates "a lack of commitment to the initiative at Government level"

"The UK is the only country in Europe to have included an opt-out option and we think this illustrates a missed opportunity to improve the working lives of millions of people in the UK. It is a pity that our Government did not have the courage to embrace the legislation in its intended form" she said.

However, the report does indicate that HR professionals virtually all recognise the requirements of the Regulations and there is widespread compliance with all of the individual regulations.

"Companies are generally aware of the Directive" said Liza Bewick "but also aware that the opt-out is available for staff. The opt-out is used for a variety of reasons: both staff and employers may think the monitoring of working hours is going to be an unacceptable administrative burden or staff may want to make the most of overtime payments. Many staff simply enjoy what they do, but we also have evidence of companies actively encouraging staff to take the opt-out option so that their company complies with the legislation without actually changing any working conditions."

Blick UK Ltd itself conforms to the Regulations and has offered its employees the choice of opting in or out of the 48 hour working week. The vast majority have opted out indicating, as an example, how little impact the Regulations will have.

The report concludes that the Regulations have basically been rendered pointless because of the opt-out.


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