Employment

Will the 48-hour working week be scrapped?

The Government has insisted it has "absolutely no intention of lowering the standards of workers' rights"

An apprentice engineer studies charts with his supervisor

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has been forced to deny reports the Government plans to tear up workers’ rights, amid claims the 48-hour working week could be scrapped. 

The Financial Times reported worker protections enshrined in EU law could be changed as ministers plan for a post-Brexit overhaul of the UK workforce. 

Kwarteng strongly refuted the claims, writing on Twitter: “The UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world – going further than the EU in many areas. 

“We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them.” 

So what is the 48-hour week? And will there be any changes to workers’ rights now the UK has left the EU? Here’s what you need to know. 

What is the 48-hour working week? 

The 48-hour working week was introduced in 1998 as part of the Working Time Regulations.

This legislation implemented the EU Working Time Directive into UK law and remains in place today, guaranteeing workers four weeks paid holiday a year, rest breaks and night work restrictions. 

The law currently says you can’t work more than 48 hours a week, usually averaged out over 17 weeks. 

However, you can choose to opt out, either for a certain period or indefinitely. Employers can ask staff to opt out of the directive but workers can’t be sacked for refusing to do so. 

“Your employer can’t make you work more than 48 hours a week on average. It doesn’t matter what your contract says or if you don’t have a written contract,” says Citizens Advice.  

“If you want to work more than 48 hours a week, you can sign an agreement to opt-out of the maximum weekly working time limit. It’s your decision – your employer can’t make you opt-out.” 

Why is the 48-hour working week in the news? 

The Financial Times claimed worker protections enshrined in EU law could be changed now the UK is out of the bloc. 

It said ministers had drawn up plans to “overhaul” the UK labour market which could include a shake-up of the 48-hour working week, rules surrounding rest breaks and overtime pay.

Labour has slammed the reports. Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said: “These proposals are not about cutting red tape for businesses but ripping up vital rights for workers. They should not even be up for discussion.”

But the Government has insisted it has “absolutely no intention of lowering the standards of workers’ rights”. 

A spokesperson said: “The UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world, and it is well known that the UK goes further than the EU in many areas.

“Leaving the EU allows us to continue to be a standard-setter and protect and enhance UK workers’ rights.”

Why is the 48-hour working week important? 

Unions argue working long hours is dangerous and have long campaigned for a reasonable limit to working hours and increased protection for workers. 

During the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government promised to bring forward an employment bill that would “protect and enhance” workers rights once the UK left the EU. 

The widely anticipated bill is expected to be published sometime this year. 

Responding to the latest reports in the Financial Times, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said the prime minister needed to bring the bill forward. 

 “The Government promised that it would strengthen workers’ rights – not weaken them,” O’Grady said. 

“Working-class voters rely on their precious paid holiday and safety measures like rest breaks and limits on working time.

“Rather than threatening hard-won rights, the prime minister should make good on his promises to his voters. And the best way to do that is to bring forward the long-awaited employment bill, to make sure everyone is treated fairly at work.” 

Have you been affected by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic? The Big Issue is committed to supporting its readers and find ways to help people stay in their jobs and in their homes through our Ride Out Recession Alliance. Send your stories and ideas to rora@bigissue.com to help us support those who need it most.

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