Working Time

Jean Lambert is Green Party Co-ordinator for the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. She is in constant talks with policy makers, NGOs, and workers organisations on the issue of working time and in September 2004, produced a Report entitled Flexible Working: A work life balance or a balancing act? Here, Jean highlights worrying working time trends in the UK.

Latest EU news

NEW - February 2006!! Jean launches new report on working time and health. Entitled I Must Work Harder? the report looks into Britain's long hours culture and the emerging side effects.

Given the report's findings, Jean makes the point that removing the opt-out from the Working Time Directive not only reduces the costs to society and the economy - it also makes good business sense!

Access the Report

I Must Work Harder? Jean's latest Report

For the Greens, current working time proposals fail to safeguard employee health and safety. Read on to find out your working time rights and what you can do to ensure that flexible employment doesn't actually mean more stress and longer hours!

In May 2005 MEPs adopted a Report on the Working Time Directive that could see the removal of the UK opt-out, however the Commission has kept the controversial clause in its new proposal. For more information Click Here

Jean's Report

Current working time law

Exploitation in the UK?

Proposals and problems

-opt out

- time on call

-reference period

Latest EU News


Current Working Time Rights

UK working time is governed by the Working Time Directive (via the Working Time Regulation). It plays a vital role in protecting the health and safety of workers from the effects of working excessively long hours, having inadequate rest and disruptive work patterns. It can also contribute to improved productivity and a better reconciliation of work and family life.

The Working Time Directive provides the following for employees with a contract - including temporary agency workers:

  • a 48 hour week maximum
  • a maximum 8 hour shift
  • weekly rest periods of at least one day off per week
  • daily rest periods entitlements of 11 hours rest per day
  • rest breaks, at a minimum of 20 minutes after 6 hours work
  • 4 weeks paid annual paid leave (but only after 13 weeks employment)
The UK - a divergence from EU standards

The Working Time Directive represents a milestone in workers health and safety rights.

However, in the UK, there is a difference.

Workers are given the chance to opt-out of the 48 hour week so that they can work longer hours. However, only 1 in 3 employees know about their opt-out rights and many employees are presented with the opt-out along with their contract. Unlike anywhere else in the EU, Britain has seen a 1% increase in the number of people working longer than 48 hours per week. Yet the evidence shows that British long hours working culture has a detrimental impact on employees' health and safety with 7 out of 10 people working over 48 hours per week saying they would like to work fewer hours.

Long working hours can cause:

  • stress
  • extreme fatigue
  • psychological problems
  • heart disease

Such health risks lower worker productivity and increase likelihood of time off work.

"The issue about who owns your time, who controls it, who says where you have to be at what point, is a key question when deciding whether or not you are actually at work."

Jean Lambert

Growing concern about the exploitation of working time rules, particularly in the UK, has been reflected in two important reports:

  1. The European Parliament Report drafted in the Committee for Employment and Social Affairs. Even Labour's own MEPs voted in support of the Report which called on the Commission to take legal action against the UK for 'widespread and systematic misuse of the opt out' (Cercas Report). Click Here
  2. A European Union Research Report. This exposed UK abuse of the Working Time Directive, and prompted the European Commission to launch a public consultation on the matter.

The consultation:

In March Jean Lambert called on organisations and individuals to respond to the working tome consultation. In order to ensure that the people of London had their say, Jean handed out flyers at London Bridge informing them of how they could contribute.

You can read the leaflet here

The response to the consultation highlighted that employees were still being exploited to work long hours.

The Commission was so concerned about the misuse of the Working Time Regulation that in May 2004, it actually took the UK Government to Court. AMICUS was one major contributor to this outcome.

Read their press release


The Commission in 2005 put forward a proposal updating and amending the Working Time Directive. Astonishingly, in a divergence from many European recommendations, the opt-out remained in the new proposal along with two other contentious issues - the definition of "on-call" time and the calculation of the reference period. Although, under the new proposals, employees could not work over 65 hours a week (unless provided by collective agreement).

Click here to read the Commission's 2005 Working Time Proposal


Under the proposals:

Where country legislation allows, the opt-out will remain but where there is employee representation there must be collective agreement in addition to the consent of the individual employee. Where there is an individual choice to be made the opt-out will still apply but with safeguards to prevent abuse - i.e. it can not be presented at the same time as the contract.



Failure to remove the opt-out according to the Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff (EUROCADRES) represents a refusal by the Commission to take the working conditions of the knowledge economy into account. It is used to lower job costs rather than to look for efficiency through quality of work. EUROCADRES also feels that this retention of the opt-out is an obstacle to the upward mobility of women in the workplace. See

 Green solution - simply end the opt-out!



  1. In the UK there is no law that a contract must be written. This makes it difficult to determine if the opt-out is being presented "at the same time".
  2. The very phrasing of at the same time throws up questions - does this mean that the opt-out can't be presented within one hour, within one week? The wording still lacks clarity.
  3. While the Directive aims to simplify procedures, particularly for SMEs, employers will be obliged to keep records of their employees opt-out status and working time, increasing the paperwork they wanted to do without.
  4. In the UK, collective agreement only covers 36% of employees, leaving the rest vulnerable.
  5. Finally and most importantly, long hours equals opportunity to exploit workers. The evidence shows that excessive working time seriously affects health and safety. The long hours culture in the UK does not increase productivity so let's safeguard the health of our workers.




  1. While the sentiment is there - to protect health and safety, this is not a practical solution.
  2. A great deal of confusion already exists with regards to compensatory rest.
  3. This is not resolved in the new proposal which lack clarity on how much time can be inactive time on call, whether this time accrues compensatory rest or whether it can be offset against existing rest requirements.

 Green solution:

Time spent on call is not free time and so it must be recognised through some form of pay. To help clarify the situation for employers, broad requirements based on health and safety principles should be put forward. Solutions should stem from full consultation with all parties. Governments should be obliged to inform employers of their rights and employers to inform their workforce. On call time can mean many things - we need to be clear about what the term means.

Under the proposals

To meet flexible needs distinction is made between active and inactive time on call, the former being on call time in the work place. Inactive time on call relates to a situation when an employee is at the disposal of the employer but not requested to perform duties. Inactive on call time would not be classified as working time unless established as otherwise by national law or collective agreement. However if there is any time when a worker carries out duties or activities in their job description then this should be considered as working time. Compensatory rest is to be granted within reasonable time and within a limit not exceeding 72 hours.


A doctor who spends one hour on the phone while on call. is likely to be allowed one hour compensatory rest. But consider if this time was split into several short calls throughout the night. Would he/she be rested and working safely the next day? (BMA source example)

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Under the proposals:

The reference period could be extended to up to one year with consultation (not collective agreement) and in the case of SMEs this could be fixed at one year. This will help meet flexible labour market demands.

However the reference period can not be longer than the duration of the contract.

Green solution: retain the existing provision of a four month reference period with extension to one year where there is collective agreement.


  1. Seasonal workers are also at risk from having their workload intensified to way beyond the 48 hour norm.
  2. Where does responsibility lie for working time where an employee has more than one job?


Junior doctors often have to work two or more posts a year, an extended reference period exposes them to highly intensive work periods. This poses a risk not only to their own health but also that of their patients.


In April 2005, following the Commission proposal, the Parliament Report on the new working time proposals was discussed in the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. Following a debate and vote by the Committee (19/20 April), a common Report was adopted, taking into account amendments from the political Groups. The Committee position differed to the Commission proposal and included the following encouraging steps:

  • removal of the "opt-out" within 36 months of entry into force
  • support for the European Court of Justice classification of on-call time as working time
  • an extended reference period only where there are conditions to secure health and safety
  • emphasis on dialogue in working time negotiations
  • special consideration to balancing work and family life and in encouraging lifelong learning

Read the Green press release which followed the Committee vote

There were two main problems with the text that the Greens wanted to see removed during the final vote in Strasbourg at its May 2005 Session. Under the proposed Report:

1. On call time could be re-classified under national legislation or collective agreement so that it may no longer be classed as working time. The Greens wanted to see the definition of on call time tightened so that workers are fairly compensated for time that is not their own.

2. Rest time periods are not clearly defined. The Green voting strategy in Plenary would therefore be to ensure that rest time is taken close to periods of intensive work so that employees health and safety was not compromised.

Read Jean's press release ahead of Parliament's vote Here

In an historic vote, Parliament with a clear majority backed removal of the opt-out from working time legislation

To see how individual MEPs voted on key amendments, including the removal of the opt-out, read the working time VOTE ANALYSIS

Read Jean's press release issued directly after Parliament's vote Here

On 11 May, Green Euro-MP's struck a blow for workers' rights following vote to end Britain's opt-out of the EU Working Time Directive.

Green MEP Jean Lambert voted in the European Parliament to adopt a working time Report that will see a historic review of European employment legislation. Unlike every other major UK Party, the Greens were only willing to support a proposal that ensured an end to the opt-out and fair compensation for workers' time that is not their own.

Read Jean's speech to Plenary on the eve of the vote

Read the full Debate

Read UK Press Release

Donkeys on Blackpool beach have given new working time rights in recognition that this makes them more productive and more appealing to the paying public. But is the fact that they should have greater employer recognition than the UK workforce a laughing matter?


"The limitation of working time has been an historic struggle for the labour movement and we should not be giving that away in the 21st century." Jean Lambert, Green Party

"An opt-out from a piece of health and safety legislation is wrong in principle." Stephen Hughes, Labour

"The rapporteur asserts that people are asking how Europe improves their living conditions. I do not believe that people are asking that." Philip Bushill-Mathews, Conservative

"We are not convinced that it is for the European Union to be the body that imposes unwanted restrictions, that have nothing to do with health and safety, on individuals in every Member State." Chris Davies, Liberal Democrat

"The best deal a worker can get is to have a job, and this directive will not improve employment or social life." Derek Roland Clark, UKIP

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7th November 2006 Council tries to find agreement on working time


Working Time - UPDATE - Stalemate on working time negotiations

A meeting of the Extraordinary Council took place on 7th November under the Finnish Presidency to try to come to an agreement on working time. However, Member States could not agree to the package and so no agreement was reached.

The meeting followed the proposed compromise text - put forward by the Presidency (having consulted with the Commission) on 20 October.

The text tried to tackle the most controversial issue of the opt-out.

The compromise text tried to resolve this issue by:
1. Allowing Member states the option to allow an opt-out
2. Extension of the reference period to 12 months
3. Limiting the reference period to 6 months where the opt-out is in use
4. Better measures to safeguard against opt-out abuse
5. Reviews of the opt-out and extended reference period to take place

The proposed text tried to soothe concerns by saying that the opt-out should be exceptional with a view to an end date but proposed no such date.

This proposal was seen as a means to compromise the polarised views of the Member States, with France leading those wanting the removal of the opt-out and the UK being its champion. The UK Government sees the opt-out as a matter of liberty. The UK government also wants a weekly cap of at least 65 hours which it argues is for the benefit of seasonal workers.

On the 7th September 2006 the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK government was breaking the law on working time.
Read Jean's press release HERE

The ETUC puts the case that flexibility needs of employers can be met by a reference period of 6 months and removal of the opt-out. In any case there has to be a clear consultation with the employee of his/her rights and expectations before working hours are set. This is particularly important given the number of migrant workers who are not aware of their working time rights and are particularly vulnerable due to language barriers.

The Green position on this has not changed. The Working Time Directive is a health and safety Directive and so we should protect workers and end the opt-out as soon as possible. A flexible workforce can still be achieved with out excessive working hours.

On Call Time

The Greens have consistently argued that on call time should be classified as working time and that sufficient compensatory rest should be given. This reflects three high-level court rulings on the basis of worker health and safety. The compromise proposal leaves the length of compensatory rest to the Member State to decide. Moreover time on call is still not classed as working time. This is therefore essentially soft law and offers no real protection to the worker.

The Council has already stated that the Working Time Directive is a health and safety Directive and that Member States should encourage reduction of long hours. Yet the simple and effective solution is being avoided. The UK should put an end to its posturing and work for the benefit of its workers and those across the EU.

The Greens support the following principles:
· Long hours do not equal flexibility
· The proposal reduces security at the expense of health and safety.
· Governments are failing to take into account the effects of long hours on a changing demographic
· We need an end date on the opt-out

For working time campaigns see:

2 June 2005: Commission issues disappointing new working time proposal

Despite MEPs voting to remove it one month previously, the Commission once again brought the opt-out back into the revised working time directive.

The European Commission, in a new proposal on the 'working time' directive, has weakened a Parliamentary decision to end member states' ability to 'opt out' of EU laws that make it illegal for most people to work for more than 48 hours per week.

Response from Jean Lambert:

I am thoroughly disappointed that the Commission reinstated the 'opt-out' into its new proposal – even with conditions. On Europe we desperately need better communication; let's have it on this issue! Parliament heard the concerns of the voters, the medical community and those in the work force with the weakest voices. Yet the Commission has unacceptably refused to listen properly.

The UK government – apparently a 'Labour' government – can hear nothing but the voice of business shouting in its ear. According to industry, there is no problem with working time and we need to fight for the privilege to work over 50 hours per week.

Let's get something straight, their argument is not about empowerment. Indeed it is a breathtaking insult when five out of every eight employees working longer than 48 hours per week receive no paid overtime. The direct correlation between the rise in working time and increasing mental illness in the UK is a clear warning that the workforce needs better protection.

We can not allow the loud and inflexible to drown out the voices of the 1 in 4 UK employees who have signed a clause to 'opt out' of their health and safety rights without ever having been given a choice on the matter.

The Commission is buckling under pressure from a UK Government which talks about flexibility but remains rigid in its attitude to politics. Is it any wonder that the French voted No?

The Green vote:

Jean believes that working time policy should run in parallel to the European Social Charter and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. They provide the right to limitation of working hours and to a safe working environment. Unless there are sufficient safeguards to protect the health of workers, from the new Commission proposal - including an end to the "opt-out", it will receive no support from Jean Lambert when the Parliament votes on this matter.


Original reasons for a working time directive resulted from various EU Treaties which state an obligation to limit the working time of every worker, to progressively reduce working hours, to harmonize upwards, and to promote dialogue between labour and management.

The ETUC is highly concerned at the new change in direction for EU employment policy.


The UK Government frequently quotes a survey that says 7 out of 10 workers would not work less hours if it meant earning less. Instead of recognising the need for healthier work and fair pay this has been spun by the DTI who say that people don't want to work less hours.

But let's look at the evidence:

  • The number of people living below the poverty line in the UK is higher than the EU average
  • It is currently possible for someone to work more than 60 hours a week and be paid less than £11,000 year
  • Over one third of men with children in the household worked more than 50 hours per week in 1998, a 6%rise since 1988.

"Workers providing services to some of the most profitable countries in the UK economy are paid wages so low that a forty hour week does not cover their most basic living costs." TELCO

For sources see Jean's Flexible Working Report.

In reality, many people feel that their long hours are a detriment to their health or their family life however they simply can not afford to work less. Jean Lambert has consistently campaigned for a living wage not a minimum wage.


If, like the Green Party, you want to see the removal of the opt-out along with clearer guidelines on time on call and a maintenance of the current reference period (4 months) then let your MEP know!

To find out who your MEP is click here

Or you can contact your MP, for contact details click here

Thirdly, you can write to the Department of Trade and Industry at:


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