Social Policy Council: Some Progress on Working Time Directive but Divisions Remain

European Social Policy, March 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

Social Policy Council: Some Progress on Working Time Directive but Divisions Remain


Over lunch, the Ministers discussed a proposal tabled by Ireland, currently chairing the rotating Presidency of the EU. The proposal seeks to resolve three points as to the implementation of the Working Time Directive, where Member States still remain divided.

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The Working Time Directive lays down provisions for a maximum 48-hour working week (including overtime), rest periods and breaks and a minimum of four weeks paid leave per year, to protect workers from adverse health and safety risks. The Directive defines the concept of "working time" as "any period during which the worker is working, at the employer's disposal and carrying out his activity or duties, in accordance with national laws and/or practices". Most of the Member States have interpreted this definition as not including periods of time during which a worker was not actually performing his or her professional tasks.

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Reference periods.

The ceiling of 48 hours per week is not calculated on a weekly basis, but over a reference period of at least four months, allowing companies to organise "working time" to best respond to their economic activities. In some cases, such as patterns of shift work, the Directive allows this period to be extended to six months.

Some delegations have complained, though, that this period is still not long enough, which is why the Irish Presidency has proposed an extension of one year. In general, delegations expressed satisfaction with this change.

Working time and rest periods.

Two recent judgements by the European Court of Justice in the health care sector have called into question the definition of "at work". In both cases, the Court ruled that a doctor who is required to be physically in the hospital, even though he may not be actively working, must be considered "at work" for the purpose of the Working Time Directive.

The Commission has since expressed concern of the very substantial costs that these rulings could impose, particularly on health service organisations. The rulings could have implications in other areas, too, such as in security activity, boarding schools, and children's homes.

Delegations agreed that there is a need to revise the definition of "working time", but not what the new definition should be. …

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