Since the Brexit deal having come into effect, the UK is no longer bound to adhere to EU employment law. Hence, the UK government is in talks to change UK employment law in December 2023 which will affect maximum working hours, legal holiday entitlement and breaks during shifts.
What is the current legal position?
Currently, in the UK working hours are limited to an average of 48 hours a week, with a minimum of 11 consecutive hours of rest in a 24 period. Workers are also entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid annual leave per year. This is in line with the European Working Time Directive, which was implemented into UK law in the Working Time Regulations 1998.
The directive was designed by the European Commission to protect worker’s rights by limiting the number of hours employees can work, how long their break can be and what their holiday allowance is.
Workers are allowed to opt out of the maximum 48 hour work week, to increase their hours for either a certain period or indefinitely. Employers can ask its workers to opt out, but workers can’t be dismissed for refusing to sign the agreement.
What is the government proposing?
Workers in the UK could lose their right to restricted work hours, rest break entitlement, paid annual leave and health and safety protections. This is following reports that the government will be lobbying to leave the European Working Time Directive in December 2023, in efforts to make the UK labour market more competitive.
How will it impact workers?
Abandoning the current legislation could lead to workers losing their legal right to paid leave, and maximum working hours. This would allow employers to override any rest breaks or paid holidays, employees are likely to have a contractual right to annual leave with their employment contacts.
There are current health and safety precautions that could be loss with this change. Including the daily and weekly rest periods, which currently protect employees from working excessively long hours.
Trade unions and employment lawexperts have warned that such a change in legislation could lead to an increase in accidents at work or result in overworked staff, which could result in increased mistakes and reduce workers wellbeing, rather than improving workplace productivity.
There is growing concern that the government’s plan will weaken workers rights rather than strengthen them. Without having working time limits, it could cause workers to leave their jobs, which could have a wider societal and economic impact.
Protection of workers rights is, as always, a political hot potato, even more so in the current climate where growth is the key objective.
The labour shortages place huge strain on employers who will look to ease restrictions on immigration and to roll back on EU inspired regulations limiting employees’ hours of work. This exacerbates staffing challenges particularly in areas like the NHS with extreme shortages of doctors and other professionals who frequently need to exceed the maximum hours under current regulations. But this has a wider impact across the labour market.
Future protection of workers rights will depend on how the government resolves the pressures to abolish pre-Brexit EU inspired regulations and the oppositions push towards maintaining existing laws alongside drives towards a closer relationship with the EU through customs union and single market ideas.
Unless and until these pressures are resolved it will be important for employment lawyers to vigorously seek to enforce current working time protections without fear or favour.