In August, new European regulations came into force to clarify and strengthen the Working Time Regulations (WTR). These introduced limits on working hours for the first time in the UK.

The WTR gave most UK workers seven basic rights, including rights to paid holidays and a ceiling on the maximum average working week. But the initial legislation allowed some temporary exemptions where employers in certain sectors argued that they needed time to comply with the law. It has also left an opt-out clause that gives workers the .choice. to work longer hours.

The basic rights and protections that the Regulations provide are:

  • a limit to 48 hours a week which a worker can be required to work (though workers can choose to work more if they want to).
  • a limit of an average of 8 hours work in 24 which nightworkers can be required to work.
  • a right for night workers to receive free health assessments.
  • a right to 11 hours rest a day.
  • a right to a day off each week.
  • a right to an in-work rest break if the working day is longer than six hours.
  • a right to four weeks paid leave per year.

Although this is good news for some workers who have had no protection from excessive working days, it.s unfortunate that junior doctors, workers in the North Sea, and transport staff have had to wait five years longer than most for these rights.

Now, this seems all very good, but the problem is that there is also no guarantee that workers will see the benefits of the new protections. Under the UK opt-out to the working time rules, it is far too easy for employers to pressure staff to work more than 48 hours a week.

Britain has the dubious honour of topping the league in Europe with the longest average working week, 43.6 hours compared with an EU average of 40.3 hours. Most European countries have set their working time limits below 48 hours, and the UK is the only EU country still with an optout.

The European Commission will debate this later in the year, but already the bosses have been pushing the government for employees to be allowed to work more than 48 hours in a week. They fear that removing employees. right to opt out of the European Working Time Directive could be “catastrophic” for business, or, in other words, for their profit margins.

The CBI Director general, Digby Jones has claimed the opt-out was needed for a “flexible labour market” (workers doing more for less) and that workers “don't want unions and politicians telling them when they can work or for how long” (but apparently the bosses can).

Given the unequal relationship between the employers and the workforce this is nonsense. The government's own statistics suggest that many employees want to spend less time at the office, even if fewer hours mean less money. Many workers simply don.t get a choice whether or not to work long hours and bosses seem obsessed with making workers accept long hours in many industries.

Pressure is exerted in many ways and a lot of workers feel bullied into staying late. For others, the workplace culture means that leaving on time is seen as “letting the team down”. What we do know is that working long hours can lead to unnecessary stress, and people with excessive days are more likely to have accidents at work.

The bosses are adept at picking people off one by one so the only way to bring to an end the culture of more hours for less pay is by sticking together and resisting collectively. Don't be pressured into working longer hours; it benefits no-one but the bosses.

Write in for a full & frank answer to a problem at work, or contact the ansaphone helpline for advice - 07984 675 281 Catalyst, SF, PO Box 29, SW PDO, Manchester M15 5HW

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