The European Working Time Directive has been in force since 2003. Increasing demands on employees in Europe, anti-employee changes in working time regulations in Austria in autumn 2018 and not least some important rulings of the European Court of Justice make it clear how important it is to regulate working time regulations at European level.
Working time and rest periods are key components of the legal relationship between employer and employee. In this context, the 2003 European Working Time Directive regulates principal minimum standards to protect employees’ health and safety in the workplace for the entire European Union.
Minimum standards of the Working Time Directive
In concrete terms, the Working Time Directive provides the following framework: the maximum average weekly working time may not exceed 48 hours and the maximum daily working time may not be longer than 13 hours. The minimum rest period must be at least 11 hours a day and in addition comprise a consecutive period of at least 25 hours per week. Employees are entitled to at least 4 weeks paid annual leave. In addition, there are regulations on night work, shift work, safety and health protection as well as patterns of work.
Jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice
Recently, the European Court of Justice has made some pro-employee decisions. It decided for example that on-call standby periods also count as working time, if the employee is waiting at home to be called, but has to be at work within a few minutes.
Furthermore it decided that the average working hours of the Working Time Directive is not a fixed but a flexible period, whereby the average weekly working time of 48 hours must always be complied with. Hence, this average number of hours must not only be adhered to during week 1 to 17, during week 18 to 34, etc. but also during week 2 to 18, during week 3 to 19 as well as during all other 17-week periods. This is to ensure that employees are not unduly occupied at the end of the first and the start of the second reference period.
According to the European Court of Justice, employers are also obliged to implement an objective, reliable and accessible working time system, which can measure the daily working hours of each employee.
The importance of European working time regulations
The amendment of the Austrian working time regulations in autum 2018 has clearly demonstrated the importance of the European working time regulations and its minimum standards: the then Austrian National Council has decided to increase working hours, to reduce rest periods in some sectors as well as other deteriorations. Without the Working Time Directive, employees might have had to fear even more significant deteriorations. Currently, some of these amendments are even verified in respect of their EU legal conformity .
High minimum standards of the Working Time Directive do not only form the basis for a social Europe, which provides employees with fundamental protection, but they help trade unions to negotiate better conditions within the scope of collective agreements with employer representations.
The future of European working time regulations
Complying with the judicature of the European Court of Justice is an important demand of employee representations. Apart from this, it is important to further develop the minimum standards in the European working time regulations. Hereby, important issues are above all a reduction of working hours as well as the right to disconnect. The Chamber of Labour will also in future work at national and European level to achieve good minimum standards regarding the law governing working time and rest periods.