Without the EU, a million extra people would be working excessive hours

The UK used to be the long hours capital of Europe and it could be again, TUC research shows


More than a million more employees would risk having to work excessive hours if the UK were to drop the EU’s 48-hour week rules, says a new the TUC estimate published today.

The European  rules are vital for protecting our health, as regularly working more than 48 hours per week is linked to an increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and a range of other ailments including stress and depression.

Safety is also at put at risk by excessive hours, as the onset of fatigue leads to more mistakes. Working when tired can be dangerous and sometimes even fatal. The Health and Safety Executive says that fatigue has often been the root cause of major accidents, whilst on the roads, studies have found driving tired can be as dangerous as driving drunk, hence the need for the Department for Transport’s Think – Don’t Drive Tired campaign.

The UK adopted the European Working Time Directive way back in November 1998. At the time, 3,992,000 employees were regularly exceeding 48 hours per week, amounting to 17.1 per cent of the workforce, and making the UK the long-hours capital of Europe. 

However, although the employee workforce had reached 26.6 million by 2015, 3.1 million more than 1998, the number working excessive hours actually fell to 3,494,000 (13.2 per cent).

So we have 498,000 fewer long hours workers in the wake of the EU law. But, in the absence of the law we would have expected to have more long hours workers . If the 1998 long hours percentage applied to the growth in jobs to 2015 then we would have expected 4,527,000 employees to be working excessive hours.

The difference between this figure and the actual number now working long hours leads us to estimate that 1,033,000 fewer people are working excessive hours because of the European Union rules.

But our glass is still only half full, because far from being ‘gold plated’, the European rules have been much too weakly enforced in the UK, and the individual opt-out from the 48 hour average limit on weekly working time is all too often not a genuinely free choice for workers. The net result is more than two million 48 hours+ workers still say that they want fewer hours.

Sadly, the current government remains very sceptical about the value of the Working Time Directive and many prominent Conservatives would like to see it watered down or  even scrapped completely. 

If you doubt that the anyone would really want to limit our rights then you should note that there is already a private members bill in parliament that aims to remove the protection of the maximum 48 hour week for NHS medical staff.

Instead of sniping at our working time rights, the government should now say clearly that it will keep this vital legislation, otherwise the health of at least a million more UK workers may be put at risk.

But just maintaining the status quo is not good enough, and the UK government should do more to tighten how the EU rules on working time work in the UK and should take robust steps to ensure that they are properly enforced.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has commented on these findings:

“Working people’s rights are on the line in this referendum – and working time protections are particularly at risk.

“Brexit campaigners have made no secret of their wish to scrap working time protections. If they get their way, the 48 hour limit will be gone and your boss and more people will be forced to work 60 or 70 hour weeks.

“The only way working people can be sure of keeping their rights at work is to stay in the EU. Nobody knows how bad things will get for workers’ rights outside of the EU, but the legal experts are all saying it will be worse.”

Paul Sellers is TUC Policy Officer dealing with working time and the minimum wage

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

5 Responses to “Without the EU, a million extra people would be working excessive hours”

  1. wg

    It is of no surprise to me that there are still a large number of people working more than 48 hours a week.
    Most people now work to Fixed Term Contracts (the new ‘hire and fire’) Understandings are covertly agreed, and waivers are signed – or “you don’t get your contract renewed”.

    The biggest contributor to this awful state of affairs is the ease with which workers can be replaced – usually with cheaper and less fussy imports from the poorer EU countries.
    Belonging to the EU, with its Freedom of Movement and Freedom of Establishment rules, has seen a return to the days of the foreman outside the factory gate, picking the individual who he knows he can exploit without too much fuss; we now have an EU-wide exploitative ‘race to the bottom’.

    We have also seen that when trades unions, in the shape of collective action, come up against the EU’s institutions under FoM and FoE rules, the trades unions come out the worst; the now infamous Laval quartet of court cases gave us all the evidence we needed as to how the European Court of Justice reacts when a corporate EU is threatened in any way.


  2. Paul Sellers

    Thanks WG

    It is absolutely right to say that people should not have to face capricious bosses not renewing their temporary contracts because their faces don’t fit, but actually most people being are still hired on permanent contracts.

    It would be true to say that temporary employment has risen from 5.4 per cent of jobs before the recession to 6.2 per cent now, but this is very likely to fall back again as the economy picks up .

    I’m afraid that I don’t really find the idea that if the UK had fewer workers there would be less long-hours working very convincing. I’m rather afraid that more long hours might be more likely.

    I think that my fear would become a certainty if the current 48 hour week regulations were significantly weakened or abolished after Brexit. Similar considerations apply to the Fixed-Time Workers Directive and other EU-derived workers rights, of course.

    The data in the blog shows long hours falling because of the EU working time rules. These rules are too weakly applied in the UK and the TUC is campaigning for them to be strengthened.

    Nevertheless, in their absence it is likely that a million more UK workers would be working long hours, so it would be fair to say that the EU rules have made a significant contribution to the work-life balance and health and safety of UK workers.

  3. wg

    Well I shall be voting to Leave the EU, and I believe the trades unions and Labour party to be completely wrong on their support for staying in.
    When a so-described European Court of Justice has the ability to overrule national union agreements, I believe that there is something wrong with democracy.

    You may feel easy in the company of the EU project’s wheelers and dealers, but I don’t, and if Labour and the unions in this country are for backing, what is obviously, an anti-democratic and corporate abomination, then they deserve my contempt.

    I believe now that too many are only interested in their own positions, and couldn’t care less about the people at the bottom in this country.

  4. Mike Stallard

    Where I live in the agricultural fens, immigration has now turned on itself with the importation of seriously poor people who work for slave wages for slave hours and live often in a shed in people’s gardens. The original immigrants complain as they are simply replaced by what I can only call slaves.
    Thank you EU for allowing unlimited immigration.

  5. Paul Sellers

    I respect the comments made, but actually most unions want to stay in the EU because they fear what would happen to UK workers’ rights if we leave. Most H&S law and working time and holiday standards now derive from EU law, for example.

    My own view is that the shock of Brexit would also impact very negatively on the UK economy. We really would be entering unknown territory if we leave, as the only precedent we have is the case of Greenland, which has never been an economic powerhouse. However, I fear that the immediate effect would be economic growth taking a tumble and employment in decline. If jobs are lost as the result of Brexit then it is those in insecure low paid work who will be hit hardest.

    I am worried because the EU operates both tariffs and quotas against outsiders who have no trade deals. This means that our exports to the EU will be depressed and, as a knock on effect, that the UK will be a less attractive proposition for inward investors from the EU. Less trade = fewer jobs.

    Also worth thinking about who might be the next Prime Minister if we leave the EU. In such a scenario the right of the Conservative party would be strongly in the ascendant, and we would be likely to soon have a PM with views that we would like less than those of the current leader, and the intensity of attacks on working people could well worsen.

    On ECJ decisions, WG is quite right to deplore the extremely negative Viking and Laval judgement. Trade unions have welcomed many other ECJ judgements though, including the BECTU case that overturned the UK government’s 13 week qualifying period for statutory holiday entitlements whilst, for example, UNISON the GMB and others were able to help a lot of their members as a result of the SIMAP and Jaeger judgements that meant that on call time on the employer’s premises had to be treated as working time. In the Harrow Wardens case, a number of GMB members working for the local authority used the ECJ judgements to successfully challenge employment contracts that meant that staff had to be on site for 111 hours per week!

    I totally agree with Mike Stallard that there are far too many people in precarious work with poor conditions and low pay. But my view is that Brexit could make that worse by sweeping away their existing rights. For me, the solution lies in campaigning for better rights and better enforcement, and that will be easier to do at a Europe-wide level, otherwise we will not be able to prevent social dumping.

Leave a Reply