Opinion: Why I’m opposed to the Working Time Directive
2015-09-15 16:40:40 -
World News

Patrick Confrey


Many people do not know what the EU Working Time Directive is, or how it affects their lives. We have to go back to the 1970s in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, and look at the labour laws, and culture, that prevailed then. A large section of the workforce then was employed in public service jobs: the council, the corporation, or civil Service. There was ample overtime in these jobs for those who wished to do it. There was an unwritten rule at the time in the home countries that a manual worker could do unlimited amounts of overtime.


One of the reasons for this was that basic pay was low, and it was difficult to get pay increases. It suited employers, as if a large order came in, all staff could be put on overtime to get the order out, and that makes sense. But there was hostility towards this culture of overtime, with the EU in particular being opposed to excessive overtime, as they saw it. But we have all forgotten that it was public service jobs, and overtime, that lifted the working man out of poverty, and gave workers dignity and a decent living in western European countries, including Ireland. 


Then in 1994, the EU Working Time Directive came in. The directive declares that an EU worker shall work no more than 10-and-a-half hours overtime per week, on grounds of healthy and safety. (This number is an average, the overtime for the year being added up and divided by 52.) But it is a draconian, nonsensical, and badly thought-out law, which should be assigned in its entirety to the dustbin. In reality, the EU Working Time Directive is part of a wider agenda to bring in a low-wage economy across Europe. In 1994, the trade unions bought into this directive in good faith, thinking that it would lead to the creation of more jobs. That is not what happened at all.


The overtime saved was quickly converted into casual jobs, and into short-term contract jobs, and the sickness of labour casualisation has spread across the Eurozone. Today a casual job, or a short-term contract job, is regarded as a norm, rather than the secure public service job. In effect, the EU Working Time Directive has quickened the pace of casualisation across Europe. We moved too quickly from a culture of overtime and secure employment to an inherently precarious low-wage culture.


Admittedly higher taxes might be necessary to pay for overtime and public service jobs, but higher taxes are the norm anyway. Besides, all money earned by public sector workers is taxed at source, which goes back to the exchequer, and earnings left over to spend go back into the local economies, which is a major plus factor.


The erosion away of overtime, and of public service jobs, has turned workers in the EU into little more than the working poor. In 2015, taxes are high again, and it is unclear as to where our tax money is going. The EU Working Time Directive, combined with the disappearance of secure public sector jobs, is leading to greater social inequality across the Eurozone as workers and others struggle to pay higher taxes out of frozen incomes. Street protests and discontent have become widespread. 


And it doesn’t have to be this way. Labour can and should be freed up, with workers doing as much overtime as they wish, and employers giving as much overtime as they can. A return to the 1970s model of public service jobs and overtime would surely lead to greater happiness and social equality in society.



Patrick Confrey is a Metro Éireann reader in Rathfarnham, south Dublin

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