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18 December 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 11:07am

What right-wingers tell you about the Working Time Directive is wrong

Brexit could shackle us to unpaid overtime – rather than freeing us.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In a spectacular work of doublethink over the weekend, the Sun ran an article celebrating our opportunity to work longer hours. “Shackles come off”, crowed its headline, heralding the “overtime bonanza” that Brexit may bring British workers.

Its argument? Without the need to comply with the EU’s Working Time Directive (WTD), UK workers can earn more by working longer hours than the current 48-hour weekly limit. And employers will spend less on agency staff.

Aside from the rather “Freedom is Slavery” tone to the piece, these arguments – often trotted out by right-wingers – are simply inaccurate. Here’s why:

If you want to work over 48 hours a week, you already can

You can choose to opt out of the Working Time Directive if you’re over 18 and don’t work in an industry where tiredness kills (airline staff, ship and boat workers, delivery drivers, other transport and travel workers, security guards on vehicles carrying high-value goods, etc. Doctors can opt out – but must still take the WTD’s rest requirements).

Workers can opt out for a specific period or indefinitely, but it has to be voluntary – and you can’t be treated unfairly or sacked by your employer if you don’t opt out.

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So UK workers are already free of the shackles of working reasonable hours – and employers can ask their staff to volunteer to opt out. In many cases, workers can find it quite hard already to assert their rights

Scrapping it wouldn’t lead to higher pay

According to a government impact report by the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2014 (16 years after the WTD was introduced in the UK), the regulation has not had a conclusive impact on wages, either way (it’s hard to measure, because of the minimum wage being introduced a year later). So it doesn’t look like workers have been losing out financially from it.

It actually makes more jobs

The same analysis found it has actually increased employment among lower-hours jobs. So getting rid of it doesn’t sound like the best thing for workers…

The whole point of it is for safety and wellbeing

The WTD is intended to improve both public and personal safety and health and wellbeing. It’s odd to celebrate the end of these protections – even if they aren’t perfectly suited to all industries, the spirit of them has been a good thing for workers’ rights in this country since they were introduced, and workers have more autonomy over their hours and how they approach their work.

Workers would lose out from unlimited hours

Companies want to make money. If they could make you work limitless overtime, then the employer is being given more power than the worker; they are likely to get more out of it financially than the worker would. The political economist Richard Murphy, author of The Joy of Tax, suggested recently that the money lost from Brexit’s growth slowdown – which the FT calculates at £350m a week – will “be paid for by exploiting British workers who will no longer have the right to go home when they want, and who will be exposed to greater risk as a result”.

Paid holiday and lunch breaks are also at risk

Annual leave is part of the WTD – four weeks. If we scrap it, paid holiday is at stake – and it’s the same with the regulation’s enforced rest and break periods (this includes lunch breaks).

The TUC warns that scrapping the WTD could reduce holiday and breaks. “Losing the protections of the directive means seven million workers could lose rights to paid holidays (4.7 million of them women, and many on zero-hours or part-time contracts),” it claims in a petition to protect the regulation. “Even more could be forced by bosses to work more than 48 hours a week. Others could lose guaranteed lunch and rest breaks.”

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