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Million more workers could be forced to work excessive hours without EU protections

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New analysis published by the TUC shows that a million more employees are at high risk of being forced to work excessive hours if the UK votes to leave the EU.

Although popular with workers, working time protections have been targeted by Brexit campaigners who claim it is red-tape that should be scrapped. Those wanting to scrap the EU Working Time Directive include Ukip, Economists for Brexit, and many Vote Leave supporting politicians, such as Boris Johnson and John Redwood. The EU Working Time Directive has protected UK workers since 1998. The Directive’s rules have deterred many bosses from forcing UK workers into an average working week longer than 48 hours.

Before the rules started in 1998, there were 3,992,000 employees in the UK working excessive hours (longer than 48 hours a week). The workforce has since increased in size by 13.4%, so the equivalent figure today would be 4,527,000 employees working excessive hours. Thanks to the impact of the EU Working Time Directive the number of employees working excessive hours has reduced. In 2015 it was 3,494,000 workers – a nominal reduction since 1998 of around half a million people. However, when the growth in the size of the workforce since 1998 is taken into account, it is an effective reduction of just over a million workers.

The TUC says that the EU’s working time protections have improved the quality of life for many workers, and increased the amount of time they can spend with their family. The working time rules have also benefitted workers’ health and safety. Regularly working excessive hours is associated with an increased risk of several health problems, including heart disease, stress, depression and diabetes. Public safety has benefitted too. Workers in health, transport and other areas with public safety demands are more likely to make dangerous, perhaps fatal, mistakes if they are over-worked and too tired.

Employment lawyers are warning that working time protection is at particularly high risk from Brexit. Michael Ford QC, the Employment Silk of the year 2015, and GQ Employment Law have both published legal opinions suggesting it is one of the workers’ rights at greatest risk if the UK votes to leave the EU. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “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 will be able to force you 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 exactly how bad things could get for workers’ rights outside of the EU, but the legal experts are all saying it will be worse.”

1.   The TUC’s estimate is based on unpublished data from the ONS Labour Force Survey (summer 1998 and 2015). The workforce grew by 13.4% between 1998 and 2015, so the 1998 figures for excessive hours have also been increased by 13.4% in order to estimate how many employees would have been working excessive hours if the Working Time Directive had not applied. The actual number of excessive hours workers in 2015 is then subtracted from this estimate in order to show the net effect of European law on excessive hours.

UK employees working more than 48 hours per week (thousands): 1998-2015

2.   Whilst the percentage of men working more than 48 hours a week has fallen from 26.7% to 19.0% since 1998, the percentage of women working excessive hours has increased from 6.6% to 7.1%. The TUC believes that the rise in the proportion of women reflects changing gender roles in the workforce, with higher patterns of representation in jobs where longer working hours are more common.

3.   Number of UK employees (thousands) that work excessive hours (over 48 hours on average per week), and additional workers at risk if protections are lost, by region (Q3, 2015)

4.   Percentage of UK workforce that works excessive hours (over 48 hours on average per week) by employment sector (Q3, 2015)

5.   The following sources references are for the examples mentioned in the text above of Brexit campaigners who want to scrap the working time protections derived from the EU Working Times Directive.

  • Ukip: The Ukip manifesto for the 2015 general election stated: “Numerous EU Directives prevent medical institutions from operating in the best interests of patients. We will scrap at least two of them: the EU Clinical Trial Directive… and the EU Working Time Directive.”. See page 17 of the full manifesto:
  • Economists for Brexit: The group Economists for Brexit comprises of eight economist led by Professor Patrick Minford. In their pamphlet The Economy After Brexit, the Working Time Directive is specifically cited in a chapter titled ‘Too Much Regulation’. See page 11 of the full document:
  •  Boris Johnson: The former London Mayor endorsed The Europe Report: a win-win situation, written for him by his economic adviser Gerard Lyons, which proposed the repeal of the Working Time Directive. See pages 84-85 of the full report:
  • John Redwood: Redwood published Freeing Britain to Compete in 2007 as part of a Conservative Party policy review. It called for the inclusion of the Working Time Directive in a Deregulation Bill that would repeal, or significantly reform regulations. See page 58 of the full document:

6.   The EU Working Time Directive was adopted by the UK in November 1998. It stipulates an average limit of 48 hours on maximum weekly working time, which is usually calculated over 17 weeks. There is an opt-out clause for individual workers, although the TUC has argued that this provision has been widely abused and long hours can effectively be a condition of employment. More than two million people who currently work excessive hours – more than half the total (58%) – say that they would prefer to work fewer hours. Note that there is no opt-out available for those who work at night, as 

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