21 February 2023
In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now we would all be working 15-hour weeks due to advances in technology enabling automation of manual tasks. Sadly, things haven’t quite turned out that way, and work continues to occupy the vast proportion of our daily lives.
As a consequence, the regulation of working time was considered necessary to prevent workers from being overworked to the detriment of their own wellbeing. ‘Overworked employees’ has also been cited as the cause of serious accidents and catastrophic failures with tragic consequences. Hence, the Health and Safety Executive is tasked with the job of enforcing compliance with the Working Time Regulations (WTR) with financial penalties and, in the most serious cases, custodial sentences, at its disposal.
Many critics who want to revoke the WTR, blame the 48 hour limit it imposes on a working week for the UK’s productivity problem – work more and productivity will rise, they say. However, the UK negotiated an exception to the 48 hour weekly working limit which allowed employers to demand workers opt out of this at any time during their employment.
There is then the argument that the WTR have less relevance in today’s world of work than they once did. As businesses and their investors continue to value their ESG agenda, the welfare and wellbeing of the workforce will rank high on their list of priorities. Coinciding with the evolution of hybrid working, these businesses will more likely self-enforce, motivated by the principles of providing a safe working environment for their workforce, looking after their wellbeing and giving them autonomy in their roles.
Unfortunately though, there are still those outliers who seek to gain an unfair advantage by exploiting vulnerable workers, usually by demanding that they work more than the legal limits on working time and not providing the required rest breaks between working days or weeks.
For this reason, it is doubtful that the WTR will be revoked in their entirety. It is therefore unlikely to be the end of the Working Time Regulations as they serve a valuable societal function. However, there may be some tinkering to reduce the regulatory burden on employers. The recent government consultation on holiday entitlement as a consequence of the Harpur Trust v Brazel decision indicates that could be an area for change.
If you have any concerns with working time or holiday entitlement, please contact Charlie Barnes.