The right of UK workers to work more than 48 hours a week is under threat. The European Parliament voted yesterday to:

  • abolish the UK's opt-out of the 48-hour weekly working hours limit;
  • block proposals to treat inactive periods of on-call time as non-working time.

The vote took place after months of (sometimes bitter) negotiations over reform of the European Working Time Directive and rejects the position adopted by the governments of the UK and other European countries.

It is likely that a process of conciliation between the European governments and the European Parliament will now follow, as efforts continue to find an acceptable package of measures for reform of the Directive. Further developments are expected early in 2009.


Under existing laws, workers in the UK can agree to work more than 48 hours per week. A worker who has opted out of the working hours limit can opt back into the working hours limit by giving his/her employer a suitable notice.

The European Parliament has voted for a proposal that would ban the opt-out across Europe within three years.


Whether on-call time counts as working time has been debated both in European and UK courts and tribunals, with often conflicting decisions. The practice of on-call time often has so many permeations (time at home/work, time the worker is asleep or is resting and free to go out) that it has been impossible to produce conclusive guidance.

There are potentially drastic implications for the health sector (and other sectors such as sheltered housing) if all on-call time is treated as working time.

European governments had agreed reforms under which there would be two new definitions:

  • "active on-call time", which only includes time spent on-call at the workplace available for work – this would count as working time;
  • "inactive on-call time", which is on-call time during which the worker is not required to carry out his activity or duties – this would not count as working time.

The European Parliament has rejected these proposals and voted that all on-call time should count as working time.


Unless European governments now agree with the European Parliament position, which is unlikely, there will be a process of conciliation to try to agree a package of reforms to the European Working Time Directive:

  • The issue will be referred to a Conciliation Committee comprised of representatives of the Parliament, European Commission and Council of Ministers to try to resolve matters.
  • If the Conciliation Committee does not find a solution then the reforms are likely to be dropped – the BBC has reported the leader of Britain's MEPs as stating that this is the most likely outcome. This could potentially mean that both the opt-out and the difficulties over on-call time would remain in place.
  • If the Conciliation Committee does agree a resolution to the issues then it will take the agreed position back to the European Parliament and Council to be adopted.