European Parliament
in action
Highlights 1999-2004

Parliament - an overview
Reform of the EU
Citizens' rights
Justice and home affairs
External relations
Environment /
Consumer protection
Transport / Regional policy
Agriculture / Fisheries
and monetary policy
Employment and social policy / Women's rights
Employment strategy
employees' rights
Equality at the workplace
Health and safety at work
Women's health
Working hours
Social security systems
Women and society
Internal market / Industry / Energy / Research

EPP-ED PSE Group ELDR GUE/NGL The Greens| European Free Alliance UEN EDD/PDE

Maximum 48-hour working week to apply to all

Too many long-distance lorry or bus drivers have lost their lives on European roads or caused the death of others because they had been at the wheel too long. In most other industries, working hours have been regulated since 1996; now commercial drivers too are to be covered by EU rules on working hours, which will give them a better quality of life and improve safety on the roads. The European Parliament has used its influence during this term to limit exceptions to the maximum 48-hour week and to ensure that the single market also means better conditions for all workers.

In 1993, the year the single market was completed, a directive was adopted laying down general EU rules on working time. Under this directive, a worker in Europe is entitled to a daily rest period of at least 11 hours as well as breaks. The maximum working week is 48 hours, and annual leave must be at least four weeks. For night workers, the maximum allowed working time is eight hours in every 24.

The rules laid down by this directive had to be enacted in national law by November 1996 but  exceptions were allowed, such as managers, doctors in training and the transport industry (road, air, rail, sea and inland waterway).  Moreover, the opt-out clause, which enables Member States to exempt themselves from the general rules and was originally used by the UK, has led to abuses which conflict with the aim of the directive. MEPs have been hoping to put a stop to this.

Bus and lorry drivers - including the self-employed

Community rules on working hours were introduced for railway workers as of 2003, and in March 2005 the last piece of the jigsaw will slot into place:  the 6.5 million road transport workers will, in their turn, be covered by similar legislation as a result of a specific directive adopted in 2002. They will still be allowed to work up to 60 hours a week, as long as they do not exceed an average of 48 hours per week over a four-month period. Bus and lorry drivers may in no circumstances work for more than six consecutive hours without a break, and night work must not exceed 10 hours in every 24-hour period.

The European Parliament fought hard, and successfully, for these rules also to apply to self-employed drivers, who make up about 40 per cent of the profession. Since the beginning of the talks on this issue, Parliament has maintained that self-employed drivers must be treated in the same way as employees, otherwise there would be a mass exodus of employed staff into self-employment. It was as much a matter of ensuring road safety as of preventing unfair competition. Self-employed drivers will therefore be covered by the same rules as employees as of 2009. And at the request of MEPs, the definition of ‘self-employed drivers’ has been tightened up in order to prevent the creation of new forms of ‘pseudo-self-employment’ during the transitional period.

Checking the slide towards opt-outs

The general directive of 1993 allowed Member States to grant exceptions to the rules. The UK successfully negotiated an opt-out system so that, under certain conditions, the working week did not have to be limited to 48 hours. These conditions included prior consent of the workers concerned, protection for them against any repercussions if they refused, and a requirement to record the time actually worked by those who had agreed to opt-outs.

This exemption system had highly undesirable consequences. In the UK today there are more workers putting in over 48 hours per week than there were before the directive came into force in 1993. Opt-outs, conceived at the outset for special cases, have become widespread. Moreover this worrying trend, which undermines the whole point of the directive, is spreading to other Member States. France and Germany are now using it in the health sector, and Luxembourg in the hotel and catering sector.

The Commission is now planning to revise the directive and, in January 2004, Parliament expressed an opinion on these plans.  By 370 votes to 116 with 21 abstentions, MEPs called for the opt-out clause to be phased out as quickly as possible. Many MEPs deplored the abuses the opt-out system has led to, particularly the fact that an opt-out is frequently signed at the same time as an employment contract, which often means the employee has no real freedom of choice. MEPs urged the Member States not to introduce any new exemptions before the 1993 directive is revised.

Doctors - a special case

In the same vote, the MEPs voiced concern about the special case of doctors. Recent Court of Justice rulings indicate that doctors’ periods on call should be counted as working time. In the absence of specific and comparative data, MEPs called on the Commission to draw up long-term proposals to resolve the question of defining and calculating on-call periods at the workplace.

Another aspect of doctors’ work - their periods in training - had already posed a problem in relation to the general directive on the 48-hour week. Almost 270,000 doctors are in training in Europe and they often work more than 48 hours per week. To change this suddenly would have been difficult. For this reason, when in 1998 it proposed extending the 1993 directive to include doctors' training periods, the Commission stipulated that the rules on working time would not apply to this particular category until after a long transition period. Parliament wanted a shorter transition period, but the Member States, in the Council, wanted to wait until 2013. Parliament was able to push through a compromise to introduce limits in three gradual stages: the working week for doctors in training will be limited to 58 hours from August 2004, to 56 hours from August 2007, and will then be 48 hours per week, as for everyone else, in 2009. If health service training systems and human resources management have to be adjusted to meet these conditions, Member States may obtain an exemption until 2011.

Organisation of working time: sectors and activities excluded: Miet Smet (EPP-ED, B)
Road transport, organisation of working time: mobile workers and self-employed drivers: Stephen Hughes (PES, UK)
Organisation of working time (revision of directive 93/104/EEC): Alejandro Cercas (PES, E)
Official journal - final acts:
Organisation of working time: sectors and activities excluded
Road transport, organisation of working time: mobile workers and self-employed drivers
Organisation of working time (revision of directive 93/104/EEC) - text adopted by Parliament



  Publishing deadline: 2 April 2004