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GOVERNMENT FORCED TO TIGHTEN RULES ON WORK BREAKS

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The Trade Union Congress today welcomed the European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgement on the rest break rights esta...
The Trade Union Congress today welcomed the European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgement on the rest break rights established by the EU working time directive (see below). In today's ruling the ECJ found that the UK government's guidance on rest breaks was 'clearly liable to render the rights enshrined in the directive meaningless and are incompatible with its objective.'

The Working Time Directive (Working Time Regulations 1998 in the UK) established the right for most workers to a 20 minute rest break if they work more than six hours per day (see exemptions in notes)

The problem has been that the UK regulatory guidance says that 'employers must make sure that workers can take their rest, but are not required to make sure that they do take their rest' (link in notes). This has been widely interpreted by employers as meaning that rest breaks can be lawfully denied.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said:

'This judgement stems from a complaint made by the trade union AMICUS to the European Commission and is the latest victory in a long line of trade union legal challenges on working time rules for UK employees. Employers will now have to do their utmost to ensure their staff get the breaks they are entitled to. The government must now change its guidance on rest breaks to ensure that workers know their rights and can benefit from them, and that employers know their responsibilities and meet them fully.'

In the light of this decision the TUC has today called on the government to review all its guidance on EU employment law to ensure that UK workers benefit from their rights and that employers are observing the law.

Notes

- There are stronger rights for young workers aged 16 and 17 - 30 minutes break if they work longer than 4.5 hours. There are slightly different rights for transport workers ('adequate rest') and some flexibility about when the break might be taken in order to cope with emergencies.

- DTI guidance on rest breaks

Judgment of the Court of Justice in Case C-484/04

Commission v. United Kingdom

THE UNITED KINGDOM GUIDELINES ON WORKING TIME INFRINGE COMMUNITY LAW

The guidelines are liable to render the right of workers to daily and weekly rest periods meaningless because they do not oblige employers to ensure that workers actually take the minimum rest periods.

Under the Working Time Directive, Member States are required to take the measures necessary to ensure that every worker is entitled to a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours per 24-hour period and, per each seven-day period, to a minimum uninterrupted rest period of 24 hours plus the 11 hours' daily rest.

The Directive was transposed in the United Kingdom by a statutory instrument (Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR)). In order to help people understand the WTR, the Department of Trade and Industry published a set of guidelines. According to those guidelines, 'employers must make sure that workers can take their rest, but are not required to make sure they do take their rest'.

As it took the view that the guidelines endorse and encourage a practice of non-compliance with the requirements of the Directive, the Commission initiated proceedings before the Court of Justice.

The Court points out, first of all, that the purpose of the Directive is to lay down minimum requirements to improve the living and working conditions of workers by ensuring that they are entitled to minimum rest periods. Those principles constitute particularly important rules of Community social law from which every worker must benefit as a minimum requirement necessary to ensure protection of his safety and health.

In order to ensure that the rights conferred on workers are fully effective, Member States are under an obligation to guarantee that the right to benefit from effective rest is observed. A Member State which indicates that an employer is nevertheless not required to ensure that workers actually exercise such rights does not guarantee compliance with either the Directive's minimum requirements or its essential objective.

By providing that employers must merely give workers the opportunity to take the minimum rest periods provided for, without obliging them to ensure that those periods are actually taken, the guidelines are clearly liable to render the rights enshrined in the Directive meaningless and are incompatible with its objective.

The Court therefore rules that the United Kingdom has failed to fulfil its obligations under the Working Time Directive.

The full text of the judgment may be found here.

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