UK workers get 1.5 billion extra days of paid holiday thanks to the EU

Paid holiday entitlements were declining in the UK in the years before the EU Working Time Directive was adopted


UK workers have gained 96 million days paid holiday thanks to EU holiday rights, totalling 1.5 million extra days paid leave since the Working Time Directive was adopted in 1998.

To look at it another way, 7.4 million UK employees, just over one in four, have gained an average of 13 extra days paid holiday from our adoption of this EU-wide minimum standard.

The TUC figures published today, are based on unpublished data from the ONS Labour Force Survey showing how many employees had less than four weeks paid leave entitlement in summer 1998, immediately before the EU holidays standard was adopted by the UK. The resultant figure is then increased by 13.4 per cent to account for growth in the number of employees up to 2015.

It is sometimes said that if the UK wanted a minimum standard for paid holiday entitlements then it could simply legislate accordingly. The problem with this view is that minimum paid holiday entitlements were actually declining in the 1990s. In fact, the Conservative Government led by John Major abolished the Wages Councils for low paid sectors like retail and hotels, leading to holiday entitlements falling for new entrants to these industries.

Even less convincingly, some of those who espouse the view that the UK would have simply generated more holidays for all without EU intervention have given the example of the Paid Holidays Act 1938. The problem is that this act, which was a good step forward in the 1930s, empowered the Wages Councils to set holidays so the act was useless once the Wages Councils were abolished.

The truth is that by 1998 the UK has failed to provide any holidays at all for one worker in 10, whilst more than a quarter of employees had less than the EU-wide minimum standard of 4 weeks annual paid leave. This was a very poor record, and women were the biggest group losing out.

63 per cent of those currently gaining from the Working Time Directive holiday provisions are women, including 3.5 million women working part-time.

But these gains can-not simply be taken for granted. If we were to leave the EU then the government would be able to amend the law on holiday rights – and the experience of the Major years shows that this can mean that the principle of holiday rights for all could simply be  abolished.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady says:

“Millions of working people enjoyed paid holidays in their job for the first time thanks to the rights we won from Europe. And millions more got extra time off to spend with their children and their friends, go away with the family or simply have a well-earned break.

“Decent amounts of holiday pay for all is a relatively recent win, fought for by generations of trade unionists, and guaranteed by the EU. We can’t take it for granted.

“But voting to leave the EU risks the paid holidays of millions. We know that some of the biggest cheerleaders for Brexit see protections for ordinary British workers – like paid holiday – as just red tape to be binned. And we know that bad bosses are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of being able to cut workers’ hard-won entitlements.

“The risk to paid holidays just shows that voting to leave the EU is a step into the unknown for everyone who works for a living.”

Paul Sellers is TUC Policy Officer dealing with working time and the minimum wage. This article first appeared on the ToUCstone blog.

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4 Responses to “UK workers get 1.5 billion extra days of paid holiday thanks to the EU”

  1. pirate3012

    The WTD has EEA (single market) relevance so if we leave the EU and rejoin the single market via the EFTA/EEA route this doomsday scenario will not unfold. Neither will trade be adversely affected so therefore, neither will jobs. More likely is that, as we will be more nimble in making our own trade arrangements than the EU dinosaur, trade will improve. If we leave, the safest and most likely way out is via the EFTA/EEA route. Ignore the garbage spouted by the official leave/remain camps and visit for well researched articles on why we should leave the EU and make up your own mind.

  2. Paul Sellers

    But my dear Pirate, there is no guarantee whatsoever that we would end up taking such a route, or how long it would take to strike such a deal. Therefore you are asking us to bet what we have already gained – in this case 1.5 million extra days paid leave, which is the focus of this blog – against an uncertain future in which we may have this right restored again at some point in the future. That seems like a rather unattractive bet to me, as we can’t gain but may lose.

    If we did have the kind of arrangement that Norway has, then surely we would have to accept every law made by the EU but the UK have no say in making them – and would have to pay for the privilege. I know that you are very keen on this, but I have to say that i fail to see how that might be better.

  3. Earl

    Hold on, John Major secured an opt out from this legislation. The EU allowed his government to get that opt out. On what pretext anyone might ask? Why did the UK merit that opt out when no other EU nations merited it? The simple reason was that the UK government of the day demanded it, so the EU complied.

    It is thanks to the Labour government not the EU! Had the Tories won in 1997, there would be no extra holidays for British (mostly low paid and female) workers and the opt out would remain in place.

  4. Paul Sellers

    The Blair government implemented the EU standard. They were able to do with the confidence that they were joining an established EU-wide standard. The TUC lobbied Labour in opposition to take this course of action. So Labour does need to be congratulated for delivering this achievement, but it would be both counter-factual and over-optimistic to suggest that this would have happened if there had no EU standard to join.

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