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

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