Workers in the UK could lose their right to restricted hours of work, regular rest breaks, holiday and health and safety protection, experts have warned, following reports that environment secretary Michael Gove will lobby to leave the European Working Time Directive on Tuesday (19 December).
Under the directive, implemented into UK law under the 1998 Working Time Regulations, UK working hours are limited to an average of 48 hours a week, with 11 consecutive hours of rest in any 24-hour period.
Workers are currently entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid annual leave per year under the regulations, which have governed employment contracts and formed the backbone of employee relations ever since they were enacted. Abandoning the legislation would see workers forfeit the legal right to paid holiday and maximum working hours.
"The Working Time Regulations enshrined the right to take holiday in law for both employees and workers. While their repeal would cause workers to lose the right to paid holiday, current employees are likely to have a contractual right to annual leave, so, in the short term, repeal may not have an immediate impact,” Barry Stanton, head of employment law at Boyes Turner, told People Management.
"The main impact would potentially relate to the loss of health and safety protections – which would be a retrograde step – such as minimum daily and weekly rest breaks, which prevent employees being made to work for excessively long periods.
“It would be unfortunate, having lived and worked with a better working environment, if Brexit was used as an opportunity to remove some important health and safety protections from employees and workers."
General secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady described the government’s reported attempt to remove the UK from the Working Time Regulations as an attack on workers, warning that up to to seven million people – 4.7 million of them women – could lose rights to paid holiday should the government proceed with the proposal.
“This is a straight-up attack on our rights at work. Millions could lose their paid holidays, and be forced to work ridiculously long hours,” O’Grady said.
“The Working Time Directive gave nearly five million women paid holidays for the first time. No one voted for Brexit to lose out on holidays, or to hand power over to bad bosses. The prime minister promised that our working rights would be protected after Brexit. Now we will see if she can keep her word, or if she is a hostage to extremists in her own cabinet.”
Workers on zero-hours and part-time contracts could particularly suffer under the loss of the directive, the TUC added, following comments made last week by former Labour leader Ed Miliband that inequality in the labour market meant many people on low wages and zero-hours contracts were being exploited in the UK workforce.
“Pulling out of the Working Time Regulations could be a damaging step for employee wellbeing in a workforce already plagued by high stress and poor mental health,” Charlotte Cross, director of the Better Health at Work Alliance, told People Management.
“Pushing individuals to work longer weeks, and potentially cutting both lunch and rest breaks, could have serious consequences – not only in terms of wellbeing but health and safety in the workplace.
“It is very important that managers and HR have rigorous support systems in place for their workers, and that working rights continue to be protected in the UK after leaving the European Union.”
Research released last month by the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association found that 35 per cent of workers regularly considered leaving their job because of stress, with a fifth admitting to having taken time off work because they felt too pressured by their job. A separate government-backed report found that mental ill-health could cost employers as much as £42bn a year.
Speaking to the Huffington Post, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rebecca Long-Bailey said the reports showed senior Conservative politicians were using Brexit as an excuse “to rip up workers’ rights”.
“Theresa May must publicly reject this approach and condemn it in this week’s Cabinet meeting,” she said. “If she fails to do so then she will have turned her back on British workers. The directive offers protection to millions of workers who without it will be vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous employers.”
At the time of publishing, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had declined to comment.