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 continues to highlight worrying working time trends in the UK.
Britain and the Working Time Directive
British people work some of the longest hours in Europe, yet due to stress and fatigue, productivity is one of the lowest. Britain is the only EU country to include an opt-out clause in the Working Time Directive and Jean has become increasingly concerned that the long-hours culture is seriously threatening our physical and mental health.
“Indirect causes of long working hours, such as tiredness on the roads, are particularly damaging with symptoms of stress and fatigue often worse than being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”
Jean Lambert MEP
As Green MEP for London, the region where people work the most excessive hours, Jean launched her report ‘I Must Work Harder? Britain and the Working time Directive’ in February 2006. The report calls on the UK Government to get rid of the opt-out, regulate the working week and protect the UK’s workforce.
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 a week
- Daily rest entitlements of 11 hours rest per day
- Rest breaks, a minimum of 20 minutes after 6 hours work
- 4 weeks paid annual leave (but only after 13 weeks employment)
In September 2004 Jean feared that flexible working schemes were being used by UK employers to force employees to give up pension rights and work even longer hours – widening the poverty gap and forcing thousands to suffer long-term ill health. Jean launched her report, ‘Flexible working: A Work Life Balance or a balancing act?’ and called for the labour market to reflect the principles of sustainable development and social justice.
Exploitation in the UK
Growing concern about the exploitation of working time rules, particularly in the UK, has been reflected in two important reports:
- The European Parliament’s Committee for Employment and Social Affairs report. 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.
- A European Union Research Report exposed UK abuse of the Working Time Directive and promoted the European Commission to launch a public consultation on the matter.
Donkeys on Blackpool beach have been 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?
An End to the Opt-Out?
Concerns over the UK Governments misuse of the Working Time Directive grew and in 2004 the Commission took them to court.
In 2005 the Commission put forward a proposal to update the Working Time Directive and astonishingly, in a divergence from many EU recommendations, the opt-out remained along with two other contentious issues – the definition of “on-call” time and the calculation of the reference period.
Following the Commission Proposal the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs voted to adopt a common Report in April 2005. The Committee position differed to the Commission proposal and encouraged some encouraging steps including:
- 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 encourage lifelong learning
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:
- On call time could be reclassified so that it 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.
- Rest time periods are not clearly defined. The Greens wanted to ensure that rest time was taken close to periods of intensive working so that employees health and safety was not compromised.
“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 MEP
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 lets look at the evidence:
- The number of people living below the poverty line in the UK is higher that the EU average
- It is currently possible for someone to work more than 60 hours a week and be paid less than £11,000 a year
- Over one third of men with children in the household worked more than 50 hours per week in 1998, a 6% rise sine 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.”
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.